Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hamlet (1948)

The most conventionally “formal” and “dramatic” of the three film versions of Hamlet that I’ve recently watched, this one is also the longest. It appears to use more of the play’s text than the others.  Yet it also makes interesting exclusions: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are absent, for example. Both the central character and his friend Horatio seem middle-aged. Hamlet’s blonde Nordic hair is disconcerting.
The director as well as the central actor of this film, Laurence Olivier uses the film to foreground the play’s most dramatic scenes and passages, which of course foregrounds his role as the title character.  The film thus becomes a series of dramatic Olivier moments.  The play lends itself to such a strategy.  Hamlet for me has always been a series of exceptional speeches and moments.  Rhetorically, linguistically, it’s a powerful play.  Dramatically, it’s not always clear what is happening, and why.  The central action is Hamlet’s inaction.
One interesting strategy is the film’s use of the architecture of the castle as a physical symbol of the rotten House of Denmark, and of the title character’s brittle psyche.  A painful scene between Hamlet and Ophelia transitions to the next through a series of incredible shots where the camera seems to swoop up and down narrow stairwells, moving from one scene to another, from inside to outside the castle, culminating in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on the parapet of the castle walls high above the sea. This for me is the film’s outstanding moment.
The great and effective ensemble cast includes Stanley Holloway as a gravedigger in a brief but notable scene. Jean Simmons is less effective as Ophelia.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Remarks for the Department of Theatre and Film Graduation Ceremony, May 13, 2016

David has asked me to speak for a few minutes about my time here at UGA.  I’m glad to do that.  I’ve been bored by many graduation speakers in the past.  Now is your time to be bored by me.

I came to Athens for the first time in January 27, 1967, to take part in a one-act play competition held in this very room.  I remember the date because it was the day three Apollo astronauts were killed in a fire during a test at Cape Canaveral.  I don’t remember anything about the competition, except that our play was called A Game of Chess, I played the butler, and we lost.

I was an undergraduate here, an English major, from 1968 to 1972.  These were the formative years of my education.  UGA was a smaller school then, more provincial, less diverse.  I lived first in Russell Hall for two years, a wild zoo of chaos and anarchy, then for two years in a hovel of a house on the edge of town.  We had a tree stump for a table and lawn chairs for furniture.  In those years on the weekends there was a rich social and cultural life on campus.  Students stayed on campus for the weekend. Downtown was fairly dead. There was officially no alcohol on campus and unofficially a lot of it. I had wonderful friends during those years.  Some are dead now, others have drifted away.  I keep in touch with a few of them.

The great gifts UGA gave me were inspiring teachers and exciting classroom experiences. I never took the opportunity to thank the English professor, George B. Martin, who was my advisor and mentor during those years.  He gave me personal guidance and advice, much of which I ignored, all of which in retrospect I appreciate. I wish I had, at some point, thanked him. It means a lot to professors to be thanked, let me tell you.

If I had to pick out a single life-changing moment in my education at UGA, it would have been in an Honors religion class taught in 1969 by a professor named Will Power. He is still alive and well today.  I don’t remember the exact subject under discussion that day--it had vaguely to do with the existence of God and an afterlife, not surprising because this was a religion class.  What I found so empowering in the give-and-take of that classroom moment--it was like a lightning strike--was the force of logic, of intellect, of discovery that helped me define my relation to the world, my awareness of who I am as an independent thinker. Another great experience was my course in historical geology, taught by J. Hatten Howard.  And Dr. Martin’s seminar in Shakespearean tragedy gave me a world view.  I know you don’t recognize these names. They are semi-mythic figures in my memory.

The truly most life-changing moment in my education, however, did not take place at UGA.  It happened when I was four years old, in 1954.  My family lived in College Park, GA, in a duplex shared with my father’s parents.  My grandfather, an old grizzled man who never shaved and rarely talked, kept a chicken coop in the backyard.  One day he brought home for me and my sister two white chickens, a large rooster and hen. That afternoon my sister and I got up from our naps and went out alone into the backyard to visit with our chickens.  They immediately attacked us, flying, swooping, squawking, coming right at us.  We were rescued by my mother. Put yourself in the position of a four-year old looking eye to eye with an angry rooster.  Life has never seemed secure to me since then.  Especially since my grandmother made my grandfather slaughter those chickens.  I stood and watched him do it.  We had those chickens for dinner that evening.  This was a grim lesson.

I suppose, looking back over my years here, that the big changes I have seen are in diversity.  In four years as a student here I had one woman for a teacher.  I never had an African American or any other person of color in a class with me.  Most students were from Georgia.  It was a monochromatic place. Today 35% of UGA faculty are women.  The student body is far more diverse, not only in color but also in international background.  The campus is a more exciting place to be now.

It’s been gratifying to have been a part of this University’s growth towards becoming a great institution for higher learning.

But the major change I have seen over my nearly fifty years at UGA is that the students are younger. They’ve grown younger every year.  The students I taught this year were 49 years younger than the ones with whom I took my first freshman English class. Why this is, I don’t know.  I can’t get used to it. The Admissions Office is up to something.

What wise thoughts can I offer you from my life and career? Not many that any other person my age couldn’t offer. But I have to tell you something, so here are a few bits of advice:

Friends. They are important.  Don’t lose touch with the friends you’ve made here.  They’re a part of you.  When you lose them, you lose some of yourself. Stay connected. One of my oldest friends at UGA is in this room.  We’ve been friends since we both joined the faculty in 1977—Fran Teague, I know you are here.  Another close friend in this room is Richard Neupert.  We both like movies. We’re going to discuss them this evening.

Family: My wife and my three sons mean everything to me.  They’ve been the motivation for my career.  Nothing in my career has been as important to me as they have been.  If you marry or have a partner or long lasting relationship, if you have children, and certainly if you have friends, keep them at the center of your life.

Learning. Keep learning—never stop learning.  Keep reading. Watch plays and films, make plays and films, go to concerts and lectures, write and create.  Engage with the world.  Keep doing this—actively, aggressively—until the moment you die.

Integrity. Don’t compromise.  Whatever job you take, in the arts or business or education or at home, don’t become a clone, a mindless autocrat, a corporate stooge, a cog in some meaningless wheel. Don’t forfeit the self you’ve become. Don’t let yourself grow old.

The Arts. Take the opportunity, at any place and time, to tell your family and friends and co-workers and strangers you meet on the street, especially the politicians who govern this state and nation, and the administrators who run this university, about the importance of the arts and of your degree in Theatre and Film.  Don’t let anyone tell you that your degree didn’t teach you work skills.  You’ve got work skills.  You’ve also got an education. Campaign for support for the arts in this state and on this campus.

I have two parting wishes for you.  One is that, once you graduate, that you do something wild and crazy that you can remember for the rest of your life.  The second wish is that, whatever you do in your life, you’ll do it well, that you’ll do it because it has meaning for you, but also because it will help others, whether you’re entertaining them or teaching them or encouraging them or just helping them figure out how to tie their shoes.

Congratulations to you all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Remarks for the Lamar Dodd School of Art Graduation Ceremony, May 11, 2016

I’d like to congratulate everyone here for the successful completion of this academic year.  I especially congratulate graduates of the Lamar Dodd School, their parents, and their professors.  I want to say something about the value of the degree you’re receiving, whether it is graduate or undergraduate.  A significant debate ongoing at national and state levels has to do with the notion that colleges and universities should be teaching work skills—how to write and communicate, solve problems, compute, and so on.  The implication is that other forms of knowledge, say, those in the arts and humanities, are less important and nonessential. This notion is founded on a major misunderstanding of the goals of higher education.  The primary goal of higher education is not to train you for a job—though I do not mean to underestimate the importance of getting one.  It is to equip you to be a fully functioning, independent, critically thinking, creative citizen of a troubled world, a person who can make smart decisions, who understands the contexts of our world, who can help effect change.  It happens that graduates so trained are highly qualified to find jobs.

Artists, art historians, and art educators create and produce work that contributes to the higher needs and values of our culture.  Whatever you do in your life, your education in the Lamar Dodd School has positioned you to influence the thinking of others around you about the importance of the arts, without which our culture would be an empty, hollow shell.

And let me point out that your education in the Lamar Dodd School has trained you to solve problems, to design, to communicate with each other about your interests and your work, to write about your work.  If you decide not to enter an arts-related field, you still have these skills, which are highly valuable, and made even more so by the larger and deeper understanding of your culture and your world that your education in the Lamar Dodd School and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences has given you.

Once again, I congratulate you all on this important occasion.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Hamlet (2000)

Of the three film versions of Hamlet I’ve recently watched, this one is the most successful in creating a film that is based on but not too closely governed by the text of the play.  It offers a commentary on late modern-day capitalism, multi-global corporations that have taken the place of city states and nations. And of course with its Pepsi machines and Blockbuster videos it shows how overwhelmed we are in our lives by corporate names, branded images, and so on.
Technology dominates in this film, with Hamlet’s self-preoccupation represented through his obsession with videos and screens and self-images.  Hamlet’s alienation from his mother, from his world, in this film is also the result of living in a hyper-modern and antiseptic urban environment of stark and over-aestheticized architecture and design, where technology sometimes subverts human interaction. Solipsism, isolation, and depression are the governing tones and themes here.
I really like this film for how it insists on the continuing relevance of the play by embedding it in the details of our modern world—the trouble is that many of the images that made seem so present in 2000 are lost on their viewers today.  Where are the iPhones? Who today would lug around a video camera like the one Ethan Hawke carries? And what happened to Blockbuster?
Almereyda doesn’t really allow the issues of his contemporary urban setting to enter into the play.  Hamlet is a disaffected youth with a taste for bad headgear.  The 17th-century plot and language of Hamlet are embedded in the contemporary world of New York City, while for the most part that contemporary world and its issues remains separate from the play itself. If Claudius is the equivalent of a 20th- or 21st century CEO, the murderer of his own brother, what is to be made of that equation?
Bill Murray offers the best Polonius of the three films.