Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Private Romeo

Over at The Mumpsimus a week or so back, Matt Cheney posted on a movie I'd heard a little of, Private Romeo, in a way that tweaked my imagination a tad more than the vague notion I had of a gay Romeo and Juliet set at an all-male military academy. I'm all for queering Shakesepeare, have done so myself indeed, (download here if you want the full script) but... well, I can live without another tragic story of gay love doomed by society's disapproval.

So I was intrigued by Matt's description of this adaptation as "virtually unique" in grafting the words onto another story. His feelings were mixed, positive as regards the first half, negative as regards the second, and pretty damning of an "incoherent, insipid ending," but it was enough for me to track down a copy and check it out. And I've gotta say I'm glad I did. I totally agree with Matt on the high quality of acting -- if only all micro-budget queer indie flicks had performances of this calibre -- and the Tarkovskian cinematography of hollow corridors. But actually I felt the second half also holds up pretty well, came away feel quite impressed. Sure, as Matt says, the stakes are lowered where the rivalry between Montagues and Capulets is dispensed with and duels to the death become brawls, but that's exactly what I liked about it, I think. From a story so overblown it's the meat of the greatest musical of all time (I will brook no dissent) and, of course, Baz Luhrmann's awesomely lurid update, director Alan Brown crafts a refreshingly low-key take on the tale, bringing an intimacy to it I found gripping throughout.

We begin with some of those Tarkovskian visuals, establishing shots of a US military academy's empty spaces -- a basketball court, the grounds, an exercise room -- then we're introduced to eight cadets in a classroom, reading Romeo and Juliet, one playing Juliet, another the nurse. All fair enough, but as the bell rings, one student carries on only to be interrupted by the senior cadet in charge, cutting in with lines from the end of the scene, and in context hinting of real-world meaning. And we're not sure how to interpret the moment. He's reading from the book, but "Madam, the guests are come, supper served up," sounds awfully like "You heard the bell. Time for chow." Is he finishing the scene or dismissing them from class? Or both? "Follow straight," he says, but it's the others leaving first.

It's not Luhrmann's approach then, where a rapier becomes a brand of gun, where the setting is translated and details of the scenario updated but the text still maps to it, where the articulations of our world are only heightened with artifice, like the conceit of sense being sung in a musical. In the opening scenes to follow the title -- which comes up not insignificantly as ROMEO first, the PRIVATE added -- we get the cadets greeting each other with Shakespeare's lines, talking of love, conversing naturally as if this language were their own, but there's something more interesting going on here. At morning reveille, the senior cadet left in charge addresses them in plain dialogue; then, in another class, as cadets Singleton (Romeo) and Neff (Mercutio) recite again -- the dream of Queen Mab passage -- they slip into such a naturalism it's hard not to read them as communicating rather than performing. But what exactly?

That we don't know is, I think, the point here. It's not that we're meant to imagine these characters living a modern-day iteration of the classic story. Rather the classroom scenes remind us that the play exists in this world, precisely to deny a Luhrmannesque Verona Beach, a substitute worldscape of a Romeo and Juliet who clearly could never have heard of Romeo and Juliet. The conceit here, I think, is a reversal of changing the trappings in which the text is articulated; instead the scenario of our world replete with the play is what we must take as stable, part of the fabric of the drama, while the articulations are the trappings transformed. Which is to say, we are not getting the words the characters are speaking. We're getting Shakespearea's words instead.

When that Queen Mab passage (interrupted in class) is returned to, Neff articulating it fully as Singleton, Sanchez (Benvolio) and himself head to a poker game, there's a sense that maybe Neff is not even really speaking of dreams. He's not a modern Mercutio spieling his riff. He's spieling a riff, but we're getting Mercutio's instead of it, in a movie dubbed into Shakespeare. Offering itself like a film in an unknown (or half-known) language without subtitles, the movie's inviting us to parse the intonation and gestures -- forcing us to do so, really. It's offering a little extra with the sense of the text, but only as a pointer to the subtext. Matt is right, I think, to say that it's "as if the emptiness of the military academy has allowed them to create their own world," like Shakespeare has "become for them a kind of code, a complex path toward emotions and ideas that their own everyday language cannot approach." But it's not that this code is a shared thing hothoused by the isolation. Rather they are talking normally throughout, in the idiom they share with us as much as with each other, but we are hearing the lyrical articulacy of their emotions, the inner Shakespeare too personal to translate to anyone.

Am I reading too much into it to find significance in the use of "ROMEO" in the NATO phonetic alphabet, to take it as perhaps a metonym for language itself? Doesn't that pause before "PRIVATE" is added to the title highlight its role in changing meaning, adding to it -- i.e. its use not just as a military rank but as a modifier, the simple adjective "private"? This is about more, I'd say, than just a crude pitch -- "He's Romeo... but in the Army!" That title, Private Romeo, points at the inner identity of a person as a would-be lover (a Romeo inside) and as an emotional language (a private Shakespearian,) at once inarticulate/inarticulable and openly expressed in every word and gesture.

The latter is perhaps the crux. We speak a common language that sort of gets the gist across, but inside it's a private Romeo we're speaking. Where a more miserabilist work might take the notion of a private code of self as springboard to fatalism -- oh, how we're doomed to be forever islands, (singletons, one might say,) incapable of bridging the gap, unable to communicate the true richness of this argot of affect we are so fluent in, not in anything so crude as English -- here Shakespeare's play is appropriated as evidence in an argument that we can and do.

As Singleton flirts with Mangan (Juliet) at the poker game, he begins with phatic mumbling about liking his kicks and his wristband, pulling the corniest childhood trick -- what's this? he says pointing to Mangan's chest to flick his face when he looks down -- as segue to Shakespeare's "If I profane with my unworthiest hand this gentle shrine." The thing is, it's all awkward playfulness even when the lyricism comes in. And as Mangan begins to flirt back, it's via metaphor of pilgrims and prayers. For sure, they're talking in the most elegant English, but indirectness is the name of the game here, fumbling around their mutual attraction, camera as unsteady as their tentative reaching for intimacy. But it works. They might really still be awkwardly mumbling in their own idiom -- it's acted with a touching naturalness as if they are -- but it doesn't matter because, perhaps unconsciously and instinctively, they're each hearing what each other is really saying beneath that.

"What's in a name?" says Mangan later, and it seems to me the film is taking this so familiar passage of roses smelling sweet regardless of what you call them, unfolding it with its conceit, riffing on that theme. I think of Wallace Stevens: "Throw away the lights, the definitions / And say of what you see in the dark / That it is this or that it is that / But do not use the rotted names." So here, while as I say the sense of the Shakespearean passages does point us in the direction of what the characters are really saying, (in their crude shared English and in their sophisticated private Romeo,) as often as not it seems the invitation is for us to abstract the affective dynamics.

And actually it's a scene in the second half where the film really became electric for me in this respect. With the duels turned to brawls leaving "Mercutio" and "Tybalt" still alive, with Singleton having run away from the academy rather than be expelled, now it's Neff and Sanchez who confront Mangan as Juliet's father and mother insisting on her marriage. Except there's no one for Mangan to "marry," whatever that might mean. Watching it, I wondered if we're meant to read "marry" as "give yourself to," if Neff having transferred roles was now casting himself as that suitor as well as the father. Is he coercing Mangan into sex here? It's a sideswipe just to have Neff as Juliet's father, knocks us out of a generally stable mapping of cadets to characters. The more we try to parse it, the more disturbing it gets.

But rather than a literal coercion, I think the sense of Shakespeare's words is being used here to estrange and complexify, to conjure a subtext of profound threat in a scene that, if we put the "real" words to it, might simply have Neff blaming Mangan for his friend's expulsion, saying little more than "this is your fault, and I'm going to make your life miserable for it." Given that Neff and Sanchez are making a YouTube lip-synch video at the point when "Juliet" is "in the chapel," with no indication of plans for Mangan, there's every indication, I'd say, that we're not meant to be literalists here, that the whole confrontation scene is about the affective dynamics. You might look at it as a failure to make the words and story fit. I think the fact they don't fit is what really makes it.

With Shakespeare's words as pointers, the negative space where we're trying to reconstruct a logical analogous coercion becomes loaded with the only menace that can really fit in that spot -- rape -- but maybe it's just the subtext we're meant to be taking away. It's not that Neff is demanding Mangan turn up anywhere anywhen for any particular reason. It's just that hearing the private language of Neff exposes sinews of sex and power that have been rippling in that character through the film -- noising up Mangan in class, drunkenly hunting Singleton through the corridors. There's almost a frisson of Pinter here, imbued by the uncertainties of relationships between what is being spoken in Romeo, what might be being spoken in Modern English, and what is being acted.

The tension it loads into the ending is one that could well irk in a "that doesn't work!" way, but rather than incoherence I see uncertainty here, the scissioning from Shakespeare's story leaving us unsure if Mangan is being coerced by Neff, the action laced with threat born of that potential. The cadet playing the friar role is set up early on as manufacturing recreational drugs, dealing them to the other cadets, and his own sampling of the goods after supplying Mangan signposts that faking death isn't the purpose here, but with that threat of "marriage" I found myself wondering if Mangan was turning to the dealer for drugs to get him through whatever Neff had in store for him. For me, that's resolved with lip-synch vid, the hollow looks of Neff and Sanchez signalling that, no, the former is not a figure of authority. Whatever is going on inside him, he and Sanchez simply look lost without their Singleton, their Romeo.

Is the purpose of the potion opaque in a story without a forced marriage to fake a suicide over then? In the end, as I read it, Mangan's plan is to cause his own expulsion, with the fear that he's overdosed driving Singleton to put him in the recovery position but take the drug himself so he shares whatever Mangan's fate may be. Cutting loose from Shakespeare's story but keeping the words does leave a fair whack of the connections here to be made by the viewer, but... well, it didn't fall apart for me.

And where Matt is disappointed at the lowered stakes, ultimately the simpler intimacy of that distinctly non-tragic ending worked for me precisely because of its less grandiose register. The stakes are lower throughout, but that restraint only made it feel more human to me. I believe in Singleton more than I believe in any Romeo, or at least I believe in Singleton's private Romeo, waxing lyrical even when he's mumbling awkwardly at Mangan's Juliet, "I like your kicks." No sweeping violins for the poignant deaths of the star-crossed lovers? Works for me. A complete disregard indeed, as Matt points out, of the drearily easy mapping in which homophobia is what renders the lovers star-crossed, so no Terribly Important Point to make about Society's Cruel Mores. Again, good. We don't need to do for gay military cadets what Brokeback Mountain did for gay cowboys. (I'm not sure we needed to do that for gay cowboys, to be honest.)

Just a fascinating little study, I thought, of love between men -- all the more so because of the way it ignores expected boundaries between homosocial and homosexual behaviour, rendering the distinction entirely uncertain, queering the entire setting so we can't tell if Neff, early on, is winding Mangan up or genuinely hitting on him, or both. If we are to take the Shakespeare as rendering that inner language, it occurs to me, maybe that ambiguity is because Neff doesn't know himself. Either way, where I automatically plumped for "winding him up" the first time round, I wasn't so sure by the end of the film, so I can rather see myself rewatching it fairly soon.

All of which is to say, indeed, I reckon it would reward a second viewing, so I certainly recommend it for a first. You may well come down more on Matt's side than mine, but I definitely think it's worth a watch.



Blogger moonlitlake said...

Great review..You made me watch the movie again.

10:09 am  
Blogger moonlitlake said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks!

12:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spot on! Sam is much more thoughtful and mature than any Romeo I've seen on stage or screen. Neff as Mercutio/ Lord Capulet is a complex mix of fear, jealousy and impotent rage. It's so refreshing not to see Mercutio clowning about on stage/screen and to hear a restrained Queen Mab speech.

4:33 pm  
Anonymous Anannya said...

I've been rooting out the few reviews of this film to if
See if there was any interpretation that matched my experience of the movie, and you put it into the perfect words. It took me a while to understand how to watch the movie but, yes, as I got into I started to watch the acting and body language as well as take cues from the emotional context of shakespeare's lines to parse a completely different meaning out of the interactions. What an intellectually delightful film? I won't say it was flawless but it was certainly a mental workout that I enjoyed!

9:00 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Cheers, Anannya. Yeah, it's by no means perfect, but definitely one of the most interesting takes on Shakespeare I've seen. And it being such a low-profile wee gem of indie cinema, without a whole lot of interwebs coverage, it's good to know others are still being intrigued by it as I was.

5:27 am  

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