WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
*½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins
screenplay by Michael Radford, based on the play by William Shakespeare
directed by Michael Radford
THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON
**/**** Image B+ Sound B+
starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson
screenplay by Niels Mueller & Kevin Kennedy
directed by Niels Mueller
by Walter Chaw As we comb through the continuing fallout of the Bush Jr. administration's first term, themes begin to assert themselves on our movie screens as clear as the words of prophets written on tenement halls. Colorized misogyny and race-baiting spectacles share time with protest pictures that are oftentimes more strident and dogmatic than the party line--it's the Eighties neo-Cleavers at war with postmodern B-pulpers, which many moons ago manifested themselves as one of the most fertile periods in the history of science-fiction and now resurface as part of a new wave of existential science-fiction. We're all about Blade Runner these days, deep into Philip K. Dick territory where memories and dreams are manipulated and franchised for you dirt-cheap. Images have become the jealous currency traded in the underground of a land where one sad breast was flashed in the middle of our annual orgy of violence, sex (sometimes incestual, lesbian sex as sold by primogenetic neocon Pete Coors--"And twins!"), and unrestrained plea for/rewarding of mass consumption. It was enough to send my beloved nation's vocal demographic of selectively pious idiots into paroxysms of...what? Outrage? Righteousness? I don't know. What I do know is that in the United States, it ain't the suggestion of sex, it's the actual, pale, flaccid appendage that feeds the sometimes-joyous result of sex that offends. Women need to be protected from showing the outsides of their bodies in the same way they need to be protected from having a say in what happens to the insides of their bodies in the same way they need to be prevented from reading, voting, or holding a job. When a society gets really frightened, see, we must protect people from themselves. Let's start at the girls and the darkies and work our way up.
Blame organized religion. Blame organized politics and lame big business, or just look to the example of Michael Radford's 1984, in which a fundamentalist, totalitarian society controls its population with carefully selected patriotic images, the oppressive threat of invasive surveillance and unjustified search and seizure, a constant state of war waged in faraway locations, and a draconian series of bans on the kinds of sex their populace is allowed to have and with whom. Better yet, look at how Radford's exceptional debut Another Time, Another Place engages the culture war from the perspective of Italian WWII POWs sent to a farm in rural Scotland to begin their rehabilitation. The widening gyre--the gulf between the beliefs of the people on either coast--in this country can be blamed on a mutual, venomous dislike and misunderstanding of one another's moral mooring. In the end, the strategy was to divide and conquer, not unite and lead. One side thinks the other doesn't have any morality, the other side thinks their opponents don't have a right to hijack morality for themselves and morph it into something that can be somehow voted upon. It's complicated, in other words--devilishly so. And when people talk about the United States getting itself into a quagmire, Iraq isn't the first thing that comes to my mind.
So into this viscous sludge, Radford offers an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice". A controversial, political play branded anti-Semitic in the kneejerk way that oppressed peoples respond to what have been in the past deadly stereotypes and attitudes (how silly of them), it boasts of a frustrated chattiness that has never leant itself well to adaptation--on stage or otherwise. The issues it addresses are, after all, fiendishly complicated. (It's fruitful to contrast it, in fact, with the frightening hatefulness of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ--a film that, forgive me, actually resurrects a play designed to incite people against the Jews.) If Radford does anything well with The Merchant of Venice, it's in his decision to strip down a lot of the source material's flotsam in an attempt to hone in on the complexity of culture shock. It may be anti-Semitic, but it's also anti-Christian: a humanist text appalled at the inhumanity of man. At its best and at its bare bones, the story is about how any inherently benevolent belief system can be wielded like a weapon when employed by the fanatical--by, for instance, two radical cultures that demand its leaders pepper their justifications for hostility with frequent invocations of divine right, divine wisdom, and, through association, divine madness. Radford clarifies the culture war as the basis of his The Merchant of Venice, never more clearly than by casting gnomish, wheezing Al Pacino as Jewish moneylender Shylock opposite rail-thin, stately Jeremy Irons as Antonio, the titular merchant fallen on hard times in the shipping business.
Falderal about a forbidden love between snooty Portia (nondescript Lynn Collins) and Antonio's pal Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) plays a little into Radford's affinity with decadent class perversity (White Mischief) but otherwise distracts from the impotent homosexual subtext and breathless anticipation of how Pacino's going to confirm his monomaniacal freakism this time. He's mesmerizing, of course, yet I'd argue that he's less mesmerizing as an embodiment of Shylock than as Pacino in a period velvet toga and yarmulke, chewing the Venetian scenery like a Jewish mother chews on self-esteem. The Merchant of Venice is an essay on the clash between socio-economic classes, genders, and religions at its best moments, as well as a metatext that looks at the difference between Pacino's Method and, how quaint, Irons's classical training--the tension between America and Europe in a nutshell (diluted by the knowledge that Radford shot scenes where the bare-breasted Venice whores (historically, bare-breasted by law) are covered discreetly in case popular American audiences demanded more chastity from their hookers) and at its worst. It's sort of interesting, but to balance Pacino, Irons is so faint, he plays like a pencil outline of himself. The only thing left of this bloated adaptation is the wonder that Shakespeare's political allegories remain au courant in any fundamentally FUBAR'd political climate no matter how tonally dyspeptic and distracting are the players asked to play it or the director asked to guide it.
From fair Venice where we set our scene to gloomy Baltimore in a 1974 just prior to the Watergate scandal ending any suspicion that the little man had a chance to change things, Niels Mueller's hyphenate debut The Assassination of Richard Nixon comes complete with a pedigree a mile long. Produced by Alexander Payne and Leonardo DiCaprio, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts (whose relationship in 21 Grams gives this film a really weird vibe), it fictionalizes and somehow even more baldly politicizes the life and sad end of one Travis Bickle, I mean Travis Bicke, I mean Samuel Bicke (Penn). (It's telling that whatever its star power, the key moment of the film belongs to gravel-voiced Michael Wincott, dressed in trenchcoat and yarmulke, delivering a speech about faith and honour that trumps Pacino's bleeding prick in its filmic intensity.) A failing office furniture salesman with a simpering personality and a misguided sense of justice and honour, Samuel is told by his fatuous boss (Jack Thompson) admiringly that Richard M. Nixon is the best salesman in the world for twice selling his country on a lie, thus he begins to identify Nixon with all that is evil and maestro Leonard Bernstein (never seen, though his Beethoven performances forming the bulk of the soundtrack) as the embodiment of all that is true. Nixon spoken of in this way reminds a lot of R. Lee Ermey's speech to the recruits in Full Metal Jacket in which Lee Harvey Oswald is remembered as a good Marine for squeezing off three shots at a moving target in a short period of time. The misfortune of its timing is that The Assassination of Richard Nixon has been rendered a not particularly subtle text by the 2004 election.
But it is another conversation late in this election year about a country divided along moral and economic lines, with one side convincing the blue-collar constituency to vote against their financial well-being by banking on (and laying the groundwork for) the eternal dictum that the more desperate a person's life becomes, the more likely they are to turn to belief in a supernatural reward offered by the sweet kiss of death. Samuel says at a point just prior to trying to hijack a commercial airplane to crash into the White House that "certainty is the sickness of kings"--which does two things that the Democratic party failed to do in their umpteenth attempt to get a stick of Massachusetts wood into the Oval Office: it clarifies the incompetence of Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice when she exclaimed that no one could have imagined using a jetliner as a weapon (except for this Bicke guy, Tom Clancy, the Columbine shooters, the Japanese air force in WWII, "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City"--oh, and Al Qaeda), and it appeals directly to the core Democratic constituency's hunger for an obvious, simplistic, didactic howl about why the blue states think our leadership is blinded by their certainty.
The problem with that, however, is that Samuel Bicke becomes a martyr for leftist chagrin in The Assassination of Richard Nixon: a slightly more murderous Forrest Gump who tries to convince the Black Panthers to call themselves the "Zebras" and accept white members, applies for a doomed SBA loan for a mobile tire business with his black friend (Don Cheadle, the black friend of the month), and convinces himself two years into a trial separation that he might win back his wife (Watts) with lies of selling ugly 1970s office furniture. (Though Travis Bickle became a martyr, too, he did so with an elephant's portion of media-tinged irony.) Making a hero of this milquetoast schlep with social anxiety disorder and some innocent blood on his hands is a dangerous proposition whether intended or just situational. Having Sean Penn looking a lot like Robert De Niro and acting a lot like Dustin Hoffman just reminds that we're a long way from the soul-searching paranoia of the cinema of the Seventies--and a lot closer to the idea of film as auto-devouring sequences of signs and signifieds. It's impossible to watch The Assassination of Richard Nixon without understanding the politics of the filmmakers and the films from which they took their cues. Whether those faults are primarily the fault of an audience too savvy for the American New Wave or of an instinct (Penn's? Mueller's?) towards importance too openly catered to is a tough question to answer.
In the final tally, though, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is at least an attempt--and often a good one from a promising young filmmaker (Mueller)--to tackle a politically charged topic in a politically charged time with artistry instead of undiluted didacticism. Its intent is aligned with Shakespeare's in that sense: to hide a political satire however well in a situational melodrama. "Hamlet" was never about Denmark, and The Assassination of Richard Nixon isn't about 1974 America. The flipside of that eternal bookmarking, though, is that a film like Radford's The Merchant of Venice becomes almost cloying in its desperation to mean something to a modern audience. It undercuts its target audience in making an appeal to a wider audience--something The Assassination of Richard Nixon laudably resists. And while I feel that the Democrats' major failing is in overestimating the mass of the voting public, that doesn't necessarily mean that I like it when it gets patronizing. Originally published: December 29, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Sony's DVD release of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice sports one of the nicest-looking non-Superbit presentations in the company's history. Rich in sepia tones, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a model of contrast, and the source print appears to have been in impeccable shape. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio complements the image with a subtly immersive soundscape and resonant voices; unfortunately, dialogue sometimes bounces off the walls of the larger Venetian interiors, and there are no English subtitles to aid in parsing out the more muffled or just plain obscure Elizabethan phrasing. (The disc is closed-captioned, but TV-activated closed-captions are automatically disabled when outputting through component video.) On another track, director Michael Radford and actress Lynn Collins join forces, such as they are, for a feature-length commentary in which the latter's generous praise of her co-stars is nearly always casually undercut by Radford, who goes on at length at one point about how awful the cast was in rehearsals. Collins seems to sacrifice her obvious intellect on occasion to keep Radford from getting too arcane on us, but though her girlish apprentice routine grows tiresome, there's some amusingly frank discussion of the time she spent on the set in drag. I must admit that while I was somewhat perturbed to hear Radford describe David Harewood as "one of the best black Shakespearian actors in Britain" not long after delivering a lament about the dangers of ghettoization (i.e., the crux of the film), I was simultaneously thrilled to be listening to a yakker worth any measure of political scrutiny.
Elsewhere on the platter, Michael Gillis's "The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare Through the Lens" (29 mins.) assembles soundbites from Radford, producers Cary Brokaw and Jason Piette, and most of the cast (including a decidedly hotchie-motchie Collins). Qualifying his remarks with a reminder that he made Looking for Richard to document his passion for Shakespeare, Al Pacino reveals that he'd turned down the chance to portray Shylock in various interpretations that never got off the ground because he didn't feel the anti-Semitism of the text had been properly contextualized therein. If only they weren't all so eager to pre-empt the standard charges levelled against the play, with Jeremy Irons, for instance, insisting there's no homoerotic subtext in his reading of Antonio. A ROM-based hyperlink to Mary E. Cregan's extensive "Teacher's Guide" plus trailers for the film, Being Julia, In My Country, House of Flying Daggers, Cirque de Soleil: Solstrom, and "Creature Comforts: The Complete Series" round out the platter.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon arrives on DVD in a suitably gritty 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image sports rich blacks and crisp detail--maybe too crisp: the light ringing around the opening titles and other fine objects betrays at least a modicum of edge-enhancement. (Good for the grain, not so good for all that loud Seventies attire.) Audio, in Dolby Digital 5.1, is more tasteful and restrained than one might expect in this era of the wall-of-paranoia mix (see: Arlington Road, Requiem for a Dream), but that's not something to hold against the track itself, which sounds full and clear. The TH!NKFilm release is being distributed by New Line in the U.S. and MGM in Canada, and though the former supplements its platter with welcome trailers for Primer and Vera Drake and the latter with a pair of French listening options, the two discs are otherwise identical twins. Originally published: May 26, 2005.