Peter S. Donaldson
'In Fair Verona: Media, Spectacle and Performance in William Shakespeares Romeo + Juliet
Shakespeare Media Allegories
Shakespeare's plays are endlessly metatheatrical, commenting on the theater and its practices often and in many different ways. There are plays within plays, explicit comparisons of life to the stage, scenes in which playhouse audience and players onstage seem to merge, and perhaps thousands of more fleeting moments that refer directly or through metaphor or double meaning to stagecraft or performance. But if, as Michael Goldman once wrote, there is always a play within a play in Shakespeare (Goldman 1972), it is nonetheless true that some plays reflect on their medium in such a sustained way that they can be read as allegories of theater, exploring the paradoxes of performance and representation as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, calling attention to historical change in theater practices (as Hamlet does when he laments the success of the new all boys companies), and even, as in The Tempest, imagining the end of all theater, when something called "the . . . globe," at once playhouse and cosmos, will dissolve without a trace.
Shakespeare film adaptations are also often self-referential, either in the simple sense of alluding to performance simply by following the metatheatrical text of the play, or in ways that invoke the special properties of the cinematic medium. All of Welles's Shakespeare films are rich in such metacinematic moments, as is Peter Brook's King Lear, in which antirealist techniques such as anachronistic black and white and violations of the conventions of space-time continuity are used not only to portray the king's increasing isolation and madness, but also to create a cinematic equivalent to the play's suggestion that we are watching "not Lear" but "Lear's shadow" or simulacrum. Brook plays, too, on the difference between the simultaneous presence of audience and performers in the theater, and the numbing absences that cinema can invoke in the hands of a skilled director. Facing the camera in a poignant close-up, Brook's Lear offer his hand to "us," the film audience, as he does to the dead Cordelia, without the possibility of response.
While not unique in its metacinematic concerns, Laurence Olivier's Henry V differs from these films in several respects that make it a significant precursor of a number of more recent Shakespeare films and a useful starting point for my interpretation of the 1996 Bazmark production, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. First, Olivier's film is concerned with a wide range of media, not only the stage (the film begins on a reconstructed model of the Globe) and the cinema, but with pictorial media, basing its scenes in the French court on Les tres riches heures de Duc de Berri, and with its own status as a kind of broadcast to the nation, alluding, in various ways, to its origins in the radio broadcasts of the Crispin's Day speech that Olivier made for the War Ministry (Donaldson, 1999). Second, the film attempts a kind of historical media allegory, suggesting, quite intentionally on the evidence of Olivier's published memoirs, that the techniques of modern epic cinema fulfill and perfect the representational ambitions of theater, making good the chorus's wish for " a muse of fire" that could bring real horses and battles before the spectators. And, just as modern media fulfill the hopes of earlier techniques of representation, so, it is implied, the England of 1944, nearing triumph over despotism, inherits both the warlike spirit and the humane civilization of the era of Shakespeare.
A number of later Shakespeare films also make media history and media transition a part of their message. Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear (1987) takes place in a surreal future society in which Shakespeare's text has been lost and is reconstructed as oral history, while a mad inventor (Godard himself) attempts to reinvent cinema by illuminating tiny toy dinosaurs in a darkened cardboard box using fairground sparklers. Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1994) imagines Prospero writing the text of The Tempest, stages the destruction and recovery of the First Folio, and associates Prospero's rejection of his magic books with the replacement of conventional cinema by digital multimedia. Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1996) explores a range of media forms, including still photography, silent black and white film, and recorded as well as amplified live sound in its characterization of Richard as a modern, media-reliant, Hitler-like tyrant, urging upon us questions of media complicity in the creation of contemporary regimes of death. These films -- to which one might add Michael Almereyda's bleak, technologically inflected film noir Hamlet (1999) in which Hamlet produces with digital editing The Mousetrap: A Movie-- are less celebratory, more critical and apocalyptic than Laurence Olivier's war-time epic, Henry V (1944), but, like Oliviers film, they span a range of media and offer an implicit (if somewhat fantastical) history of media in transition. As makers of media allegory, these filmmakers take Shakespeare as their precursor and predecessor, rewriting metatheatricality as cross-media self-consciousness.
Baz Luhrmann's film belongs with this group of Shakespeare films that make creative use of the present ferment in communications technologies and representational practices not only to attempt new interpretations of the plays but to explore our own rapidly shifting media landscape. His Romeo + Juliet is perhaps the most media-saturated of all Shakespeare films yet produced, with televisions on the beach and in the pool halls of its contemporary "Verona," and a kaleidoscopic succession of video, newspaper, and newsmagazine coverage replicating the details of the Capulet-Montague feud, all adding, as the slogan on a gas station sign proclaims "more fuel to the fire" of the urban culture of violence that destroys the lovers.
While the film's attention to media, especially to "the media" (broadcast and print news media) is obvious, the idea of associating Luhrmann's work with that of Olivier or Godard may well be questioned. When Cineaste solicited comments from a number of Shakespeare film directors for a recent print symposium, Romeo + Juliet was easily the most controversial film mentioned, provoking negative comments even from innovators like Peter Hall and Franco Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli was particularly harsh:
The Luhrmann film didn't update the play, it just made a big joke out of it. But apparently the pseudo-culture of young people today wouldn't have digested the play unless you dressed it up that way, with all those fun and games. (Brook et al. 1998, 54)
Other critics have been equally severe, especially in regard to the film's allegedly inept handling of Shakespeare's verse or "language." The characters sound, in this line of critique, as if they were reading from a script. In contrast, academic critics, notably Timothy Murray (1997), Barbara Hodgdon (1999) and William Worthen (1998) have praised the film for its blend of popular culture, mass media savvy and theoretical sophistication. Worthen, for example, reads the film's sometimes awkward handling of verse as well as its visual excess as elements of a "citational" strategy, Luhrmann's acknowledgments that a contemporary work is not and cannot offer us an authentic or original Shakespeare. Like all performances for which there is a script, Romeo + Juliet quotes or cites its text. But in Brechtian fashion this particular performance draws attention to the fact of citation, to its distance from the text and from Shakespeare. Its bold and dissonant namings and labellings--a title that claims literal Shakespearean authorship and then immediately explodes the claim of authenticity by gross anachronism; a "Verona" that is not Verona but a phantasmatic double of Los Angeles; "swords" that are not swords but 9mm pistols engraved with that brand name--help direct our attention to the gulf that separates text and performance.
The citational strategies of the film are central, I would argue, not only to the distinctions the film makes between Shakespeare's "original" and its surrogation in contemporary performance, but also to its success and power as media allegory and critique, for Luhrmann's unsettling juxtapositions place us at a distance not only from Shakespeare, but from the seductions of the high-style media-intensive culture the film evokes and might otherwise seem to revel in. Luhrmann depicts a world saturated by image, where mass media and corporate power have triumphed even more decisively (if such a thing is possible) than in real life. But while this system is portrayed with immense energy and even delight, it is also presented as cause of the tragic action. The out-of-control media culture of Verona is the film's equivalent for the the Capulet-Montague conflict in the play, Luhrmann's extrapolation of the text's insight that the violence of the feud, ("bred of an airy word") is self-replicating and meaningless. Rather than constituting an endorsement of media culture, Luhrmann's presentation of "Verona" as a society in which fetishized image and capitalism constitute a unified and nearly unopposable system is a critique, convergent with several of the more radical strands of contemporary media theory such as those articulated by Guy Debord and the Situationists in the 1960s (Debord 1994). The Situationist legacy continues today in both an activist strain, represented by Kalle Lasn and the editors of Adbusters , and a more theoretical one represented by Eco and Baudrillard, who use the term "hyperreality" for the supersession of reality by media image which Debord had named "the spectacle." While Romeo + Juliet resonates with both earlier and later versions of this tradition, I will more often draw on the earlier formulations in glossing the film--in part because, like the Situationists, Luhmann is concerned to show how traces of earlier, more popular and participatory cultural practices-- uch as an impromptu drag performance -- survive at the margins of late-capitalist, media saturated cities. "Fair Verona" has a past that is more theatrical, closer to Shakespeare than its mass-media present: traditions of live performance, improvisation, and festival persist and at times challenge the reign of what Debord called "the spectacle." But such challenges do not prevail and the feud -- linked in the film to the domination of media image over life--continues. In what follows I fill in some of the details of this sketch of the film's shape, reading Baz Luhrmann's energetic and innovative work as an allegory of life in the age of media spectacle.
Origins: The Myth of Autochthonous Television
The whole of life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. (Debord 1994, 12)
Whereas Olivier's prologue is spoken on the stage of "The Globe," Luhrmann's is presented as a news broadcast which we watch on a 1970s television set, decontextualized by its placement at the center of an otherwise black film screen. Old-time T.V., not Elizabethan London, is the point of origin. At first the tv screen is dark like the filmic image that frames it, and then the channel switches, audibly clicking as if the dial were turned by an invisible hand, or turned by itself in mystic anticipation of the later technology of infrared remote control. Visual static appears, followed by the image of an African-American anchorwoman. As she delivers the opening lines of the Prologue in the tones of contemporary reportage, a slow zoom brings the set nearer until it fills a substantial proportion of the screen. As the Prologue ends, here as in the play, by announcing the "two hours traffic of our stage," coverage "goes live," and we are pulled toward and through the television screen, like a spaceship entering a time warp, into an urban landscape which seems to be inside the set or on the other side of the screen.
In this and in a variety of other ways that follow, Luhrmann suggests that the boundary between reality and its media representations is shaky or nonexistent. The city we see is shaped, even created, by the broadcast. What we see on screen is a fantasy version of Los Angeles, but bold title cards name it, impossibly, "Fair Verona," writing Shakespeare's setting over a surreal version of our own world in the manner of Godard's King Lear. As in more conventional establishing sequences, we are first shown the city's center, dominated by a cathedral tower topped by a grand modernist statue of Mary, hands rigidly outstretched, ringed by news or police helicopters. (The production team called this the "Church of the Traffic Warden.") An even larger freestanding statue of Christ matches and balances the cathedral, on the same axis. Twin, featureless corporate office towers of the Capulet and Montague corporations flank the main thoroughfare which runs between the statues. As is increasingly the case in the opening sequence of contemporary film, the establishing sequence shows us not only the landmarks, but the media that define the space: mediascape as well as landscape. The rapid zoom sequences that bring us in toward the center and out again to a wider view traverse not only the urban grid but a broad range of media representations of it, shifting, in successive shots, from video to newsprint and glossy newsmagazine photo versions of Jesus and Mary as well as to the 35mm cinematic images of these sculptures that in a conventional film would signal the "real" space and time of the narrative. In this blazingly rapid and protean sequence the real cannot be easily identified among its mediated representations. It appears (if at all) as one option in an integrated media spectrum. While it has become a commonplace that media coverage often influences or provokes the events that are covered, the Capulet-Montague conflict is a media-generated event in a far more literal sense. The film suggests, at least at the start, that there is nothing "before" or "outside" television. In Jean Baudrillard's terms, media simulacrum takes precedence over reality: "the map engenders the territory " (1983, 2).
When the credit/prologue sequence has ended, the film adheres somewhat more closely to narrative and spatio-temporal continuity, but unpredictable frame-rates, hallucinatory seuqences and the omnipresence of surreal advertising slogans and video displays continue to convey a sense of unreality even as we follow the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet. Media are ubiquitous, including not only television receivers, but an array of surveillance technologies. A huge bank of closed circuit monitors cover every part of the Capulet mansion, including the swimming pool in which the "balcony" scene is enacted; floodlights mounted on police helicopters illuminate dark corners of the city; the high-powered binoculars in police helicopters, and the telescopic rifle and pistol sights attached to the guns carried by the rival clans as well as by the police also bring distant sights near, reinforcing the cross-media video zooms of the opening sequences and bringing to the surface the root metaphor of television as real-time Fernsehen, distant sight. To borrow a phrase from Benjamin's classic essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (Benjamin 1969) the film brings everything in the city "very near, very fast". Magnification, replication, and dissemination are instantaneous.
For contemporary theorists of the hyperreal, the replication of images extends beyond the cheap reproductions of works of art that Benjamin had in mind to broadcast images and even to urban architecture, where the vogue for repeatable, modular forms signals the replacement of competition by its simulacrum. Baudrillard, not entirely fancifully, reads changes in the New York skyline as indicative of this shift. In the era of individual competition, the landscape was dominated by skyscrapers each reaching higher than the last--the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building. In the age of late capitalism, global corporations and the hyperreal, the featureless twin rectangular solids of the World Trade Center dominate. "Why are there two towers" he asks (Baudrillard 1993, 135-36), and answers that their twinning is a warrant of the power to generate identical forms. In the film, the twin corporate headquarters of the Montague and Capulet families, identical except for their surmounting signs, function in the construction of the hyperreal in a similar way. The text of Romeo and Juliet itself emphasizes binaries and suggests twinning, providing a textual anchor for this postmodern motif: there are "two households" ("both alike"); a "pair" of lovers have sprung from the generative but "fatal loins" (whatever parts of the body these are, they certainly come in pairs) of "two foes" (four parents are needed, but the strict binarism continues, perhaps to suggest at the outset that the polar oppositions of the feud, as arbitrary as they may be, will prove decisive, perhaps to suggest that, in a sense, Romeo and Juliet are nearly twins). In the film, even the prologue itself is doubled: spoken once by the newscaster, then in voice-over by the Friar. Then it is repeated again in fragmentary form on monitors that are part of the narrative sequences. The phrase "two households," repeated many times in the doubled prologue film, is also the framing motif of the play.In the play the reasons for the conflict between the houses are arbitrary and superficial, the political meaning of the Guelph and Ghibelline conflict that divides these families in Dante having long been forgotten or ignored by the time of Da Porto's Istoria ([1535; 1539]1831), the earliest source that tells the story of the lovers. In contemporary versions of the story of Romeo and Juliet, the feud tends to be repoliticized, as in West Side Story. In Luhrmann's postmodern Verona, the feud is ethnically tinged as well but the appearance of conflict between these corporate families is a mask for a deeper alliance of interest and the daily violence in the streets is simply one of the ways in which a highly unified and all but unopposable system conducts its normal business.
Religious Imagery: Appropriation and Détournement
For the Situationists, television was especially important as a means by which the image culture of the spectacle could penetrate into the home. The January 1963 issue of the Internationale Situationiste, for example, focuses on the intrusion of the spectacle into domestic space, and is illustrated by an image of a television set displaying the message "le spectacle a la masion ce soir" [The spectacle--at home tonight]. As a powerful agent for extending the reach of false consciousness into the recesses and corners of personal life, television was thus, in a sense, the successor to the ideological role assigned to religion in Marx and Feuerbach. In fact, Debord's manifesto, the Society of the Spectacle uses a quotation from Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity as its epigraph:
For the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence, illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion is held to be the highest degree of sacredness. (Debord 1994, citing Feuerbach, L'essor du Christianisme, 2nd ed.)
In Debord's terms, "the spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion and its heir" (17-18). While religion plays a more complex role in Luhrmanns film than simply as a vehicle for false consciousness, as in the line of ideological theory that connects Marx, Feuerbach, and the Situationists, the many "sacred" spaces and objects in Romeo + Juliet illustrate Feuerbachs thesis. Mass-produced religious images closely parallel other media messages in ubiquity, and are presented as instances of the power of the media to saturate the city with false consciousness.
The central cathedral the locus of "the highest degree of sacredness" in Verona, seems at times to be a broadcast tower, and as in many "real-life" newscasts, this downtown landmark serves as a dual symbol of the city and of the evening news. Further, the monumental statue of the Virgin that surmounts the building is itself a media icon, reproduced across the range of media the film presents. Religious images are not merely a subset of mass-produced or broadcast image, however--they embody the power of the spectacle to penetrate the most intimate recesses of personal life. Literally hundreds of crosses are shown on screen in the course of the film, in all sizes and styles. They are worn around the neck, shaved into the backs of heads, tattooed on the body, printed on shirts, engraved on gunstocks, mounted on dashboards. They are shown in absurd proliferation in every public and domestic space, many of them internally illuminated by neon light. In creating the Christian hyperreal of Verona Beach's cathedral, the art director, Catherine Martin, brought so many images into the sacristy of the Church of the Sagrada Corazon de Maria in Mexico City (where the film was shot) that the real priest became suspicious of mockery, and she had to "explain" that they were necessary to portray the faith and customs of another time (Luhrmann 1996).
Though this explanation is disingenuous (the film does not recreate a period environment), mass-produced and faux mass-produced religious images are indeed used in the film for something more than mockery of religious kitsch and popular Latin Catholicism. Rather, such images play a role in the artistic and political strategy Debord called détournement, the appropriation of the motifs of the spectacle by its adversaries (Debord and Jorn 1959; Marcus 1989, 168ff.). Luhrmann's style at once unmasks the role of religious symbol as commodified and fetishized brand name and badge, and also constructs dynamic sequences in which such symbols are appropriated in ways that derive from punk or Gothic détournements or are even restored to something like their "original" significations, as symbols of love, compassion, or tolerance.
One of the most characteristic instances of the spiraling of religious signification in the film involves the "+" in the film title. Worthen understands it as an instance of citationality or distancing of performance from originating text. It is certainly that -- marking classic "high culture" text with the informal typography of playground romance and youth culture graffiti. But it is also a cross and its introduction on screen places it at the center of the complex contestation over the meaning of the Christian cross that the film explores.
In the credit sequence, the title Romeo + Juliet is first seen in white block lettering against a black background, the two names connected by a plus sign that is a miniature, fiery red Gothic cross, very like those seen in the literature and on the websites of the "Goth" subculture of today. The sign thus is a détournement of Shakespeare title as signifier of official culture and of Christian symbol.
In the context of the sequence in which it first appears, this "+" is seen also as a compression of the violence of the streets into the tiny space between the names of the lovers. The sequence begins with a cross of one kind at the center of the screen--the crosshairs of a telescopic pistol sight tracking a victim in a car (whose jerky frame-by-frame movement evokes the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination). As the bullet strikes the passenger in the open car, there is a match cut to the falling body, spiraling through space, its twisting limbs momentarily taking a cruciform shape. Then the body is replaced in a split second by the red Gothic cross, shown full screen only for several frames before it "zooms" down into the miniscule red plus sign in the title. Though seen only briefly here, the red Gothic cross is a central image for and of the film, and was reproduced in publicity materials, posters, and in digital form on the pages of the film's website. In its "full size" instantiations, the red cross that forms the "+" sign is illuminated by the flickering reflections of candlelight, relating it both to Goth subculture as well as to the supersaturated religiosity of the Capulet tomb, Juliet's bedroom, and other spaces of the sacred in the film, where candle, pulsing strobe, and neon lights flicker on the surface of countless icons, crosses and statuary. Further, as the red cross replaces the falling body, the dark outline of the falling human body also zooms down, diminishing almost to a point, as it morphs into the tiny ampersand "&" at the center of the cross. The dynamic replacement of wounded body by a typographic symbol within another symbol suggests endless replication, a mise-en-abyme of reinscription and resignification--but it also suggests that any cross (any coupling or copula) is marked with the trace of the suffering human body and is thus also a crucifix. In a sense, the complex cross of the title is a dynamic visual equivalent for the deathmark in the text, inspired by the Prologue's reference to the "fearful passage" of a "deathmarked love."
Such complex patterns of reinscription are frequent in Romeo + Juliet. A second example is the way in which the meaning of the lines referring to the star-crossed lovers who "take their life" from the loins of foes is shifted or detourné by another typographical choice. A title card with an initial "t" in the shape of a runic cross appears as Pete Postlethwaite reads the line on the soundtrack in a way that brings to the surface the suggestion of suicide latent in the line. This potential meaning is enacted in the play's final scene, but few production enables us to hear it in the Prologue, where "take their life" refers to the birth of the lovers (albeit from "fatal" loins). Because the prologue is read twice--once on the evening news and once in a solemn and more compassionate voiceover--the conventional meaning, as well as the deeper proleptic meaning that fuses birth and suicide are both presented. In this case, Luhrmann's repetitions and complex overlays of significance restore possibilities of meaning that an attentive reading of the text can amply support.
A third example of the spiral of religious signification typical of the film is offered by the interpretation of the line "Turn thee, Benvolio, look upon thy death." In speaking these lines, Tybalt opens his jacket to reveal his pistols. In Shakespeare's text, the line is already intertextual, an echo of the scene in Marlowe's Tamburlaine in which the conqueror commands his captives to behold their imminent death, seated on his sword-point. But in Luhrmann's version, as Tybalt shows his holstered pistols he also makes visible another of the film's ubiquitous Christian symbols, the image of Jesus and the sacred heart imprinted on his T-shirt. Read one way, this sacred image is debased by its appropriation as youth gang brand, while from another perspective, that of Marxian critique, the juxtaposition of the gun and the image of Jesus merely reveals the ideological function religion normally plays. However Luhrmann's postmodern sensibility does not allow either of these meanings to be final ones, for the image of Christ and the sacred heart undergoes further development in the film, in which its potential as a symbol of compassion is in part restored. The friar's hallucinatory image -- which prompts him to find ways to turn the "household rancor to pure love" is identical to the image on Tybalt's shirt, and it also appears, on Romeo's shirt as he moves decisively (but ironically and very temporarily) from the world of the feud to commitment to Christian love. Each of these uses of the image are themselves complex, their ironies balancing the trust that the lovers and the friar place in them, but they cannot be contained within the limits of ideological critique. Further, what is shown on Tybalt's shirt is not simply an image of the sacred heart, but an image of Jesus displaying it, this ostentatio or unveiling mirroring and complicating Tybalt's gesture, which now can be read as a revelation of the symbols of compassion as well as a display of the instruments of death. Furthermore, even the pistols and rifles in the film are doubly or triply marked, "turned" in signification, since they are decorated with religious images and, in one of the most remarked upon citational strategies of the film, bear brand names drawn from Shakespeare's text ("Sword," "Dagger," "Longsword"), reminding us, with campy exuberance, of the early modern props they substitute for and overwrite.
These complexities create a spiraling of reference, in which the religious symbolism of the film can be (indeed, must be) understood in relation to multiple frameworks. Cross and sacred heart are inherited Christian images, but they are also signs of the domination of the spectacle, their ubiquity and plenitude a sign of its power. They are also appropriated as badges of the youth culture (cf. Hebdige 1979), where they oscillate in meaning, marking the gangs' attempt to distinguish themselves from the dominant corporate/media culture of the adult Capulets and Montagues as well as their participation in and victimization by that culture. Beyond these frames, the plenitude as well as the contested status of religious icons function not only to create the world of the film, but as markers of the signature visual style of Baz Luhrmann and Bazmark Productions. This style--strong, intrusive, copious, witty, appropriative, allusive--attempts to fill the screen with icons, logos, turned images of all sorts, and so, in a sense, to out-spectacle the spectacle.
So that if, in Romeo + Juliet, religion has become (or is shown to have always been) a fetish or brand logo, it is never only that: there is always another turn in signification, by which appropriated or corrupted tokens regain some of their force as signifiers of fidelity, compassion, charity, and seriousness. The Friar sees a huge image of a wreathed heart in the sky as he hatches the fatal plan of turning the rancor of the feud to love through the marriage of Romeo and Juliet. (The image in the sky is a version of the one on his shirt.) We see the moment as excessive, an index of the Friar's semistoned wackiness, perhaps as a hallucination induced by the helpful weeds and flowers he has been distilling--but it also conveys what the director considered the film's central message-- one of compassion and tolerance in the face of the labeling of differing religions, ethnic groups, and sexual communities as enemies because of " a brand name that someone made up in the dark ages" (anon. 1997). The cross and the sacred heart are in one sense, prominent among those Medieval trademarks, in another sense they stand for values the film affirms and for a style of citational but passionate reappropriation not only characteristic of youth subcultures, but of Luhrmann himself who often, as in victory photographs taken during the successful Paul Keating campaign for prime minister of Australia, for which the Bazmark group managed events and image-creation wears a large Gothic cross.
La Dérive: The Place of the Stage
If détournement is one mode of resistance to media, Another is called "la dérive," goalless and spontaneous walking in the city. Deriving, perhaps, from the persona of the hypersensitive urban stroller in Baudelaire and other Symbolist poets, it is the urban radical's equivalent to geomancy, involving cultivation of sensitivity to energies and traces of an urban experience prior to or resistant to the regime of the spectacle (Debord and Jorn 1959; Marcus 1989, 168ff). To apply Baudrillard's metaphor, one might think of this practice as the search for the tattered map of the real in the hyperreal urban grid that has all but effaced it.
In Luhrmann's film, Romeo's dérive is associated with Sycamore Grove, the part of Verona Beach that is actually adjacent to the beach and distinct in style and pace from downtown where the feud takes place and corporate towers and monumental Christian architecture dominates. Though the filming for these sequences was done in Vera Cruz, this locale in its contrast to the city center evokes the relationship between Venice Beach and downtown Los Angeles. It is a run-down area devoted to the cheap amusements of a former era--rusty merry-go-rounds turn in the wind, the seedy pool hall (labeled "The Globe Theater") is located here, and the landscape is dominated by the contrast between the grandeur of the ocean, sand, and sky and a large ruined arch that stands on the beach. This is where Romeo's "early walking" takes place, and he is first seen looking at the sea and writing lines of verse in a small notebook with a pen. Luhrmann takes Romeo's poetic side seriously, restoring an aspect of the character often lost in productions that see only the empty imitation of the conventions of courtly love in the pre-Juliet Romeo. The production commentary makes clear that the ruin is the central proscenium arch of a decayed cinema palace, it's "fourth wall" destroyed and open to the sky, as if the building had been blown open by ordinance from a battleship. Yet, because the building has a stage under the arch and a few broken seats remain of the city side, it also evokes theater, and in fact it is used as a stage for improvised performances by the Montague gang. Impromptu theater and cinema thus merge: they are both aspects of the city's past, this place a site for fragmentary and improvised alternatives to the powerful media-intensive culture of the center. The world of the film is thus postcinematic as well as post-theatrical. Sycamore Grove provides a hint of history at odds with the counter myth of the televisual origin of the city, and in the history of the production it competes with television as point of origin, since it was the originating image of Luhrmann's design, imagined and built as a model two full years before shooting began in Mexico City (Luhrmann 1996).
Though the theater is in ruins, it provides a setting for Romeo's withdrawal and his attempt to separate himself from the violence of the feud, and a location for the wild improvisations of Mercutio and the Montague boys, who watch his performances from the few seats that remain on the city-side of the structure. "The place of the stage" to use Steven Mullaney's term, is indeed marginal or liminal in Verona, and allows a free space for satire and poetry, slower rhythms, older media.
"In habito di ninfa:" Drag Performance from Da Porto to the Sydney Mardi Gras
At night, the meditative space of the ruined stage is transformed into a site for alternative drag performance, as Romeo is joined there by the Montague boys before the Capulet ball. Mercutio, an African American in a resplendent platinum wig and sequined bra and miniskirt, is introduced to the audience in full drag, screeching onto the beach in his low-rider, producing purloined invitations from between his legs as he vamps on the stage to the lyrics "just another lost and lonely wife." Some reviewers objected to the drag sequence and its sequel at the ball, but it has a long history, for even before Shakespeare conceived Juliet, the Nurse, and Lady Capulet as drag roles for his transvestite theater, Romeo had appeared in the very earliest rescension of the story, Da Porto's in drag at the Capulet ball--"in habito di ninfa." What a nymph might wear might be little enough, less perhaps than Mercutio's short skirt in the Luhrmann film, but prose narrative can afford to be imprecise in a way that stage and film cannot. In the second edition, perhaps out of a modesty that would increase as the story made its way through more puritanical hands, from Belleforest and Boiastuau to Shakespeare's immediate sources in Painter and Brooke, the phrase is altered to "in habito di donna" (Da Porto, ([1535; 1539]1831). Though Shakespeare did not know Da Porto, intermediate texts--Bandello, Boiastuau, Painter, Brooke--retain traces of Da Porto's design, emphasizing Romeo's beauty. Bellinis concert opera I Capelleti e i Montecchi is still performed with a female Romeo in mans dress. Shakespeare does not restore Romeo's feminine masquerade, but his version is sexually bold in other ways, offering perhaps the bawdiest language in Shakespeare, including the double-entendres often cut in the past in high school versions, the postcoital aubade and Mercutio's lewd wish that Romeo be a "pop'rin pear" and Juliet "an open etcetera" (or in some modern editions "open arse"). Luhrmann's Mercutio also draws on a more contemporary tradition, for Zeffirelli had opted in 1968 for what Renata Adler called a "softly homosexual" mood in the friendship between Romeo and Mercutio. Luhrmann of course knows the earlier film and alludes to it in a number of shots in which Romeo embraces and comforts the flaming, nearly hysterical Mercutio.
Drag is used here, coupled with fireworks and the psychedelic style that links both locales, to connect Mercutios performance with that taking place at the Capulet mansion and to blur boundaries. Mercutio's entrance inserts countercultural "drag" style at the center of the ball, for he descends the grand staircase in his sequined costume, now enhanced by the addition of angel wings. The thin line between feminitity as masquerade and as reality is underscored by the way in which this sequence exactly repeats Lady Capulet's earlier descent of the same staircase (to the andante movement of Mozart's Symphony no. 25) in campy make-up, shower cap, and underwear, interrupting her own dressing up as Cleopatra to search for Juliet. The soundtrack commentary makes it plain that the visual echo was part of the design--in fact the boundary between male and female "drag" was considered so fragile that the designer, Catherine Martin, comments that the opening credits, in which each character is clearly identified in writing on screen, were added in part to identify Juliets mother so she wouldnt be mistaken for a drag queen when she enters half dressed (Luhrmann 1996). While Oliviers triumphalist media allegory blends boy player and "real" actress at the end of Henry V, here femininity is doubly constructed, and drag, with its own kind of "realness" takes precedence over its supposed original.
These sequences also link the film to recent Australian films such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (dir. Stephan Elliot, 1994). Like Priscilla, Romeo and Juliet makes numerous allusions (not always understood outside Australia) to the crucial role of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Australia's cultural imaginary (Quinn 1994; Bziorak 1995; Jones 1997; Searle 1997; Perry 1998). The Mardi Gras, which began in 1972 as a gay rights protest march at which many marchers were arrested, has become the largest outdoor festival in Australia, as well as the largest and most widely publicized gay and lesbian rally in the world. It is attended by more than 600,00 spectators and covered live on national television. The parade begins with an act of New-Age refoundation, a display of fireworks, set off by scantily clad leather boys in harnesses, at the site of Arthur Phillipss settlement of Sydney in 1788 (Jones 1997).
Luhrmann's film and the culture/couture of the Sydney Mardi Gras are closely related in a number of ways. In the multimedia version of this chapter I presented evidence of several specific echoes of the 1995 parade in Luhrmann's 1996 film -- including the performance of a marcher/performer who for years has appeared in a costume like that of the butterfly/angel-winged Mercutio in his grand entrance. Other elements, like the sacred heart imagery discussed earlier, also have analogues in the parade. In fact, the Mardi Gras is also a model for the film's repurposing of Catholic imagery. As in the film, the relationship between religious imagery as symptom of the meaningless proliferations of mass culture and religion as a locus of values that might --if repurposed or appropriated, "detourned"--constitute the basis for resistance to the regime of the spectacle, is a part of the parade. Floats feature "the Pope" as a spokesman for safe sex, handing out condoms from his mock Pope-mobile, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an international collective that began in San Francisco are marchers too--these are men, some mustached, habited as nuns and espousing a creed reminiscent of Rabelais's Abbey of Thélème, in the service of gay rights and support for AIDS research. But if some religious motifs are détournés, reversing their conventional meanings, the float devoted to the Blessed Mary McKillop, another perennial presence at the festival, creates its variation on mainstream significations in a different way, not through parody, burlesque or reversal, but simply by the inclusion of what might be a perfectly acceptable display such as might be seen in a Catholic street festival in many countries in the context of a gay event. The float consists of a performer dressed in a white dress with a large red pillowlike representation of the sacred heart sewn on the bosom. The Blessed Mother Mary McKillop, who worked for social justice and the education of the poor, died in 1909. She was a rebel within the hierarchy and was disciplined by the bishops, but eventually prevailed and founded her own order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Her shrine has since become an international pilgrimage site (Hull 1995; Thorpe 1994). The appropriation of her image and that of the sacred heart in the parade is noteworthy for its respectful style, and in this context serves as a reminder that the devotion of the sacred heart itself began as a response to various strands of Protestant predestinarian theology. The meaning of the sacred heart, as used in the parade as in the multifarious images in the film and in the culture of Mexico where the film was shot and which the film tropes upon in multiple ways, all draw upon those aspects of the image that emphasize tolerance and universal charity. Central to the film's strategy is the idea that such an image participates in, but survives its endless replication and its misuse as consumerist icon and firearms logo.
Read in this context, the Capulet ball as Luhrmann stages it can seem a momentary triumph of alternative cultures and styles; a benign form of the merger of illusion and reality, as if the Mardi Gras had moved permanently from the streets (or, in the film's terms, from the improvisational spaces at the margins of Verona) to the centers of wealth and power, gracing them with its liberationist energies. There are many indications, however, that the move from Sycamore Grove to the Capulet Mansion is a shift from creative exuberance to decadence: the hallucinogenic tab (marked with a heart) that Romeo consumes signals a queasy, seasick quality in the camerawork and especially in the vertiginous alternation of fast and slow motion and in and out of focus zooms. The Capulets' style of dress-up is eclectic, but Satanic (Tybalt), Ptolemaic (Lady Capulet), and decadent Imperial Roman (Capulet) costumes mark differences between Capulet drag and the Mardi Gras-influenced style of Mercutio. The psychedelic becomes threatening, as these snarling or confrontational figures loom suddenly in Romeo's field of vision, and lustful, as Capulet grabs repeatedly for the nearest scantily clad young woman or lifts up his garish toga to flash the camera.
Through a glass fishtank (but then face to face): True Love and Optical Mediation
Like Mercutio, though in a very different way, Romeo brings with him to the Capulet ball an alternative style and a mode of life that the film has established as closely associated with the "place of the stage" in Sycamore Grove, with the ruined theater on the beach, and with the more easygoing life of the city's past. And, as with Mercutio, Romeo's presence at the ball (and his falling in love with Juliet there) raises the hope that the energies and honesty of the youth cultures that subsist at the margins of Verona might find a place closer to the center. The meeting of the lovers is set off from the ball by a sequence that serves as a kind of ritual cleansing. Dizzy from the effect of drugs and the vertiginous whirl of costumed figures, Romeo casts his mask aside and soaks his head in a deep washstand to sober up just before he catches sight of her through the distorting and reflecting glass of a tropical aquarium so large that it forms a kind of wall between them. They move around it in a delicate dance, finding and losing eye contact before coming face to face for a fleeting moment. We are encouraged to experience this moment as "purer" in feeling than the ball, but it remains tinged by the hyperreal. Intensely colored luminous ocean fish swim by, evoking the psychedelic imagery of the ball and the iconography of hallucinogenic vision. The pair enjoy a moment of private contact here, but this is hardly an escape to a "natural" or unmediated place of meeting. Their initial intimacy is made possible, then enhanced, by the fact that it takes place as a shifting interplay of mutual gaze, through glass, refracted by water, occluded by tropical fish--their attempts to get a good look at one another are entrancing and at moments comically distorting. The spectral images we see in and through the glass in this complex play of refraction and reflection allow us to see the relationship beginning while the couple themselves are still, as Prospero might have put it, "surprised withal." Romeo sees Juliet through the glass (her refracted image is the object of his gaze). From another angle we see her image through the glass and his image reflected on the surface of the glass. The two images--one real, but seen through water, one a mirror image -- form a couple in a way neither of them (each intent upon the other) can see.
The sequence is entrancing, but when Romeo takes Juliet's refracted image for immediate presence, he bumps his nose on the glass, making the same mistake, in a lighter key, as those literalist rubes of cinema legend who mistook the maidens on the screen for living presences and tried to embrace them. This optically mediated courtship dance is in some ways a visual equivalent to the shared sonnet in the text, in the sense that even love at first sight is made possible by a negotiation of formal boundaries, which the lovers alternately transgress and respect. The glass, the water, the magic of the couple that forms before us, like the constructive optical illusions in Lacanian illustrations of the workings of the gaze, all suggest the persistence, even the necessity of mediated communication even in this most intimate of the spaces the film has yet shown.
The first kiss takes place in the very temporary seclusion of an elevator between floors, and the balcony scene takes place in a swimming pool watched by a friendly security guard on an array of surveillance monitors. These scenes, too, develop the theme of the permeability of the Capulet space, its openness to the lovers meetings and desires-- and in this contrast sharply with Zeffirelli's more anxious construction of privacy and seclusion under surveillance. To this point, the film intimates a kind of coexistence of Debordian "spectacle" and alternative spaces, styles, and lifeways, as if the rhythms and the media of the past, the modes of romance, elegy, and meditation could blend and interpenetrate the world of the corporate and contemporary hyperreal; as if the ease with which the lovers find a place to meet and kiss augured a more permanent mode in which their love could continue.
Failures of Communication
The turn to tragedy, however, is marked by the failure of such mediations and accommodations. In the fight scene, the ruined theater, the locus of alternative and creative energy in the film, becomes a stage on which Mercutio delivers his last speech. In this sequence, the consequences of such a stage's inability to distinguish spectacle from reality become evident. The rear wall has been blown through as if by the large gun of a battleship, and if, in the early scenes this huge opening let in the light of dawn, here it frames an ominous confusion--both Capulets and Montagues watch Mercutio's death scene from the tattered seats on the audience side of the arch, which faces the city, while for his revelation to the screen audience of the extent of his wound he faces the beach side. His line "a plague on both your houses" is addressed to Capulets and Montagues, now seated as one house, but echoes more widely, perhaps implicating the cinematic audience as well. The sequence may be compared to the ways in which Olivier's Henry V makes transitions from stage to "real" space and from past to present--as if the voice of the great conqueror king, first heard in the film on the stage of the Globe, reaches out, through the medium of epic cinema, to later ages and to a whole nation. In Romeo + Juliet the bitterness of Mercutio's death speech is enhanced by its performance as an oration from a ruined stage, echoing in a void, the proscenium arch, itself framed by empty sky, sand, and ocean. What earlier seemed a creative elimination of barriers is now dangerous; there is no fourth wall, no "liminal" place to serve as sanctuary; the point is reinforced by shots of the stage from both sides as the storm (a serendipitously real, unplanned storm in Vera Cruz that occurred on the day of the shooting) darkens the sky.
Matching the failure of the "space" of alternative performance in Verona Beach, Romeo's exile (to the "Mantua Outback") is beyond the reach of urban communications media, but it is bleak and hopeless domain of seedy mobile homes in the desert, where even the express mail service (named "Post Haste Dispatch" in the film), cannot succeed in delivering the crucial message concerning Juliet's mock-/death. If community is defined by media coverage, as it is in the film, these are the media outlands or eschatia, not a refuge but a wasteland, a land of no return.
These sequences, in which alternative modes of communication such as improvised theater and slow "express" mail are seen to fail, and in which alternative spaces collapse into the center or are emptied of significance, prepare for and foreshadow Romeo + Juliet's powerful conclusion. In the final scenes, Romeo returns to "The Church of the Traffic Warden" at city center, and the most intimate medium of all--face to face speech at close range--trails off into inaudible whisper as the "society of the spectacle" triumphs and the pair of star-crossed lovers "take their life."
In the text, the death scene takes place in "Capels [sic] monument," an outdoor location outside Verona's center, perhaps in a churchyard. Romeo approaches it with "a mattock and a spade." Luhmann shifts the location to the interior of a church at the center of town, a setting by now established as a part (perhaps the center and origin) of the culture of the spectacle. The interior of the Capulet chapel has been glimpsed as early as the credits, and then again, as a proleptic "flash forward" when Romeo senses "some consequence yet hanging in the stars" and we see him peering into a church interior we do not yet (quite) recognize as the space that will serve as Juliet's tomb. The chapel is the location in the film where the religious excess of the visual design reaches its point of greatest saturation, with thousands of votive candles of all sizes, and neon crosses by the dozens, Juliet laid upon a bier as upon an altar. Romeo, who has returned to Verona after hearing of Juliet's death, seeks refuge there from the glare and gunfire of police helicopters, but there is no sanctuary in the film; the lovers end their lives at the very center of the city, within the symbol of its fusion of religion, media and corporate power.
In what follows, Luhrmann alters the sequence of events in the text, having Juliet wake from her trance before Romeo dies so that the lovers are alive and conscious together briefly. But she is not conscious enough to restrain him from drinking the poison. Romeo, his hope extinguished, does not believe sufficiently in his senses (she is still warm, there is color in her face) to watch her long enough to see her move. He looks away (upward, reproaching God or the gods) makes a speech, and drinks. In Shakespeare, of course, Romeo is dead when Juliet wakes from her trance, but in the context of the longer history of the story, from Da Porto in 1535 to recent stage productions of Shakespeare's play, the death scene has varied widely in the degree to which the lovers share a final scene. In Da Porto, Bandello, in Otway's Caius Marius of 1660, and in Garricks adaptation the lovers converse, sometimes at length, before they die.
In a review of recent stage productions for Shakespeare Survey, Stanley Wells notes several in which Juliet shows signs of life before Romeo dies (Wells 1996; Holding 1992). Looked at in the context of the whole tradition, the Luhrmann version is notable for how early Juliet wakes and for its refusal of mutually shared last moments (there are pages of goodbyes in Bandello). The pair are brought together, but not reunited; they are taken off screen on gurneys in separate body bags, but even before that the distance between Verona and Mantua has been, in a sense, internalized. In despair, Romeo cannot attend to Juliet enough to see her move and wake. There are wide-eyed close-ups of recognition in the sequence, referencing Zeffirellis wonderful close-ups of Juliets eyes--but here the recognition is ironic, registering consciousness of imminent death. Romeo is almost instantly paralyzed; he whispers "thus, with a kiss, I die" nearly inaudibly, but cannot manage a kiss or even a smile. The moment is visually poignant, but it also registers the lapse into silence of Shakespearean language in the film. Against the silence of the lovers, there is the grim contrast of the loud gunshot to the temple that ends Juliets story.
As if to reinforce the bleakness of this close, there is almost immediate "coverage" of the events as we see news footage of the bodies loaded into separate ambulances just after the deaths, and the final sequences function as a conclusion not only to the tragedy but to the allegory of life under the regime of fetishized media spectacle which Luhrmann has constructed. In the final sequence, the set-up of the Prologue is repeated in reverse, with the Epilogue spoken by the anchorwoman we saw in the beginning of the film, on the same television set, which slowly recedes and diminishes toward the back of the film image, and then disappears. There is something especially bleak about such an ending -- Shakespeare's words fading a second time to silence as a television set shrinks to the vanishing point of the cinema screen. Here the historical sequence of media that includes Shakespeare's "original" play, its adaptation for the screen, its reduction to news story within that film--ends in oblivion, as if the world(s) we had glimpsed in and through the television screen vanish with it. This movement contrasts strongly with the triumphal translatio mediorum, the rehearsal of transition from "real" space to stage at the end of Olivier's Henry V, where Renaissance and modern media join, transitioning smoothly, "leaping o'er time and distance" just at the point at which Henry's double victory, success in battle and as wooer of Katherine, are sealed and celebrated. The Luhrmann ending joins media at their vanishing points, not in their plenitude and power, and in doing so echoes the final sequences of another recent Shakespeare media allegory, Prospero's Books, in which Prospero's acknowledgment of the loss of his magic powers is interpreted as a reduction of his image, seen now on a screen within a screen that then recedes into the darkness and vanishes (Donaldson 1997, 175; 1998).
The Double Ending: From Citational Shakespeare to Techno-Baroque
In a sense the story of Romeo and Juliet has always had two endings, one tending to sentimental melodrama and the other toward the bleak acknowledgments of the tragic mode. David Garrick was said to have performed a "happy" ending in which the lovers survive, alternating this version on successive nights with Shakespeare's bleaker conclusion. Even in Shakespeare, where the lovers die in both the First Quarto and in the Second Quarto/Folio version, which is the basis of the modern edition, there are differences. In neither are the lovers conscious at the same moment, but Q1 suggest, far more strongly than Q2/F, that there will be a meeting after death. In the received text, Juliet's final lines are "Unhappy dagger/This is thy sheath; there rust and let me die," while the First Quarto suggests a reunion like that of Antony and Cleopatra: "this shall end my fear/ Rest in my bosom, thus I come to thee."
Luhrmann's version embodies the doubleness of the tradition. His media allegory concludes as a cruel triumph of the spectacle, with an astonishingly deliberate and poignant gunshot, all too familiar-looking footage of urban news coverage of the event, with the ubiquitous television screen having the last word. But within that framing, the death scene also honors the promptings of the text and the tradition toward a more redeeming and transcending conclusion, and I believe does so in a way that affects what the film has to say about the relation of contemporary media to the arts and media of the past.
First--the "Church of the Traffic Warden" is not only the most icon-saturated space in the film. It is also a space that we quickly come to see as a dignified, beautiful, ennobling setting for tragedy; perhaps, in the process, adjusting prejudices against visual excess the film itself has endorsed and deployed in its use of "Latin" religiosity as critique of commodified religion. At the beginning of the sequence, the saturation of the thousand and more candles, interspersed with large neon crosses threatens to overwhelm the human meaning of anything that might happen in it--there is no sanctuary, no space apart, no place not filled with the "brand names" of "Dark Ages." Yet as the sequence proceeds the harmony of this aesthetic may be distinguished from the jarring juxtapositions of mass-produced Christian images and breezy violence we have seen earlier, and this "techno-Baroque" interior joins with other elements in the staging and soundtrack to move, very firmly, toward the sacred and away from wit, satire, or critique. As Romeo first peers into the church, then enters it, walks down its aisle to the place of the altar where Juliet's body lies, we recognize this as the place where Romeo and Juliet were married; as shots proceed from wide shots to close-ups of Romeo, the myriad candles shift function, from markers of excess to resonance with his grief, and then, as we draw nearer still, to light sources, tender, appropriate, and, as life and death alternate as presences within the sequence, as images of a poignant transience.
If one image of the "end" of William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet is of body bags on gurneys moving into separate ambulances, another is the striking illusion that follows Juliet's death, created by filming the lovers with moving cameras hoisted on ropes and pulleys, in which Romeo and Juliet, embracing on the bier on which they die, seem to float above us in apotheosis, like the figures in a trompe l'oeil ceiling, while the liebestod from Tristan and Isolde plays on the soundtrack. This ending is closer to the hints of transcendental closure suggested by the First Quarto's "rest in my bosom/Thus I come to thee" and effects a final and powerful recuperation of the religious motifs in the film. Barbara Hodgdon (1999) has recently argued that the "double ending" mirrors both the realities of modern urban life that young people face as well as the continued vitality (and necessity) of romance traditions in contemporary youth culture.
In doing so, the sequence also continues and concludes the film's association of the alternative world the lovers hoped to create with the arts and media of the past. Traces and reminders of that world have been present in the film all along--in Mercutio's performances, in the dominating image of the ruined theater, and pervasively in the many ways in which the film's citations and surrogations make us aware that the film is not classical or authorized Shakespeare even as they reiterate and refresh the traditional construction of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a paradigm of romantic love. Now, in the final sequences shot in the cathedral, allusions to the past predominate, reaching beyond Shakespeare to include Medieval romance, Wagnerian opera, and Baroque illusionist painting, all invoked to reinforce the association of traditional art forms and legacy media with romantic love. Most important, such "citations" are no longer comic or ironic, but now blend seamlessly with the contemporary, slow-paced romantic style associated with the lovers and first seen in the film when Romeo is introduced writing Petrarchan poetry.
The convergence of Luhrmann's romantic style with an unironic use of Wagner and Tiepolo may blunt the films edge as media critique and call in question aspects of my argument, which has invited the reader to notice ways in which the film carries on radical traditions of ideological demystification, from Feuerbach and Marx through Guy Debord, punk, Gothic and gay activist subcultures and styles. If Luhrmanns film is convergent with the aesthetic strategies and resignifications of the Syndney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, it is also open to the valid criticism, urged even by the founders and original participants in the Mardi Gras, that the event has been co-opted, transformed by its success into a celebration of mainstream culture (Searle 1998; Jones 1997). But, understood differently, Luhrmann's double ending may deepen its value as critique. Following the rich ambivalences and oscillations of Shakespeare's ending, Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet attempts to give its allegory of life in the age of media spectacle the stature of tragedy.