Friday, March 9, 2018

Julius Caesar

Joseph Mankiewitz (working with John Houseman) directed this 1953 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  The movie seems to have been made primarily as a demonstration that Marlon Brando cast as Antony can speak Shakespearian blank verse -- something that he accomplishes with apparent aplomb.  The movie is generally effective in presenting the play (albeit with the obligatory cuts -- Cinna, the poet, is not in the film).  The picture is tasteful, elaborately staged, and, generally, irritating in just about every way possible. 

The opening scenes take place in a vast space, presumably the Roman forum, and involve crowds of extras parading about as centurions, senators, and centurions. The first shot shows us a triumphal bust of Caesar decked with flowers -- this image is indicative of the problems that will vex the film as it proceeds.  The bust of Caesar looks nothing like Roman art, is not convincingly Greco-Hellenistic, and not stylized or abstract either -- in short, the set decorator wasn't sure whether to cleave to archaeologically exact replicas of ancient Roman art or whether to devise some other form of representation.  The image literally replicates the appearance of the actor playing Caesar -- he looks remarkably like LBJ.  But the scale of the image and is shape is subtly wrong and casts us into an uncertain limbo between stylization and realism.  This is fundamentally the problem with the set decoration throughout the film -- it is lavish but clearly theatrical (there are painted backdrops or matte images that are obviously stylized throughout most of the film).  Yet, some scenes like the large-scale battle of Philippi are shot outdoors in a dramatic and stony canyon in southern California -- this yields a strange mix of stylized and realistic settings that is disconcerting.  (For instance, Brutus has a field tent with his army that seems to be about the size of the Pantheon -- it is pointlessly large and elaborate and seems to claw against the representation of Brutus as essentially virtuous and disinterested, that is, not ostentatiously self-serving).  This mixture of realism and highly stylized imagery probably didn't bother audiences in 1953 -- Westerns characteristically mixed beautiful location footage with soundstage dialogue scene and the bluish half-light used to simulate night (day-for-night shooting) doesn't seem to have bothered anyone.  In fact, the set decoration on this picture was awarded an Oscar.  (The cast is all-star:  John Gielgud, surprisingly young, handsome and agile as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus, Edmund O'Brien as Casca, Deborah Kerr wasted in the tiny role of Portia.)

As far as I can tell, the acting is all exemplary.  Lines are read crisply and with proper prosody and, generally, everyone speaks clearly and passionately.  The film's peculiarities are rooted in its sources -- when I was a  boy, everyone read Julius Caesar in 8th or 9th grade and so the play is the one work by Shakespeare that, in America, is part of the common cultural property of those High School-educated in the public schools.  The fact that Julius Caesar is (or, at least, once was) universally taught in High School disguises the play's essential strangeness -- revisiting this play, which I have read four or five times and probably seen an equal number of times, I was struck by the play's peculiarity, it's curious form that straddles genres and the odd passivity of its principal characters.  At the outset, in scenes that should be filmed in claustrophobic close-up, Cassius sets upon Brutus and tempts him to envy Caesar.  (Cassius' strategy is clear and, also, clearly effective -- this makes Mark Antony's encomium to the dead Brutus asserting that he alone was never moved by "envy" seem ironic; Antony, of course, is the master of irony, saying one thing but meaning another, most notably in his famous oration over the corpse of Caesar:  the ending of the play, a scene in which Antony praises another corpse, this time Brutus, for not being "envious" is consistent with his earlier assertion, repeatedly stated and charged with vitriol, that Brutus is an "honorable man".  Neither utterance is objectively true and the play repeatedly measures the distance between people's words and their acts:  honorable men don't conspire to butcher their close friends.)  The play poses a fundamental question -- that is, the problem of personal merit.  Caesar is a sort of cipher in the play, a noble doofus.  Brutus is clearly more virtuous and Cassius more eloquent and more passionately ambitious.  And, yet, the populace worships Caesar to the extent that he is offered a crown, not once but three times.  Cassius' seduction of Brutus is fundamentally based on this argument:  what quality does he (Caesar) have that you don't?  But Caesar is, in some ways, blessed by the Gods -- he knows the tide that controls men's affairs and can act in accord with those natural cycles.  His merit is inexplicable but obvious and this maddens Cassius and Brutus.  A curious feature of the play is that it feels to me to be caught mid-way between tragedy and history -- in fact, the play resembles in my assessment Shakespeare's Macbeth.  It's about political envy and the consequences, I think, of imposing human values on a system that is, in effect, divinely instituted -- hence, all the imagery of gloomy horror and the omens/portents that congest the play.  Cassius is too petty to sense that the murder of Caesar has offended those very same powers that inexplicably promoted Caesar to the heights of power.  But Brutus understands precisely that once the die is cast, a fatal mechanism will ensnare and destroy him and that there is nothing he can do to repel this fate.  Hence, film's portrait of individuals caught in the toils of a remorseless  destiny who can't save themselves.  This is rendered obvious in the death scenes of both Cassius and Brutus.  Unlike Othello, for instance, who has no difficulty making his "quietus with a bare bodkin", the Romans can't kill themselves -- they are so engulfed in doom that they don't even have the agency for self-murder.  Cassius has to enlist a subaltern to stab him to death.  Showing a bit more agency, Brutus has someone hold a blade in fixed hands while he "runs upon it."  This peculiar and hopeless passivity of the principal conspirators suggests that they are mired in a nightmare machine that will rend them to pieces regardless of what they do.  We might call this machine "history" although it acts "tragically" -- that is, destroying particular people in accord with some malign rule.  The reason the concept of "tragedy" is misplaced is that the play doesn't really see characters as punished for their hubris -- that is, dying for reasons attributable to their own particular failings; rather, they seem to die because "history" demands it, notwithstanding and possibly even because of their individual merits. In this context, falling asleep is as noble and efficacious as leading a great army in a desperate battle -- this is touchingly demonstrated in the scene in which Brutus bids his slave-boy to watch with him awhile on the eve of the battle; in a reprise of Christ's agony at Gethsemene and is the best, and most touching, thing in the film. The staging of the battle scene further emphasizes this theme of passivity in the face of doom that characterizes the last third of the play.  Clearly, the two armies are shown to be  within arrow-shot of one another -- Antony's forces  are on cliff tops and concealed in rock fall from the defile, Brutus' army marching through that defile only a few yards awasy. Yet neither side sees the other and no one reacts to the fact that Brutus is obviously marching into an ambush.  The way the sequence is shot, the protagonists seem to be blind and their armies equally sightless -- huge forces are adjacent to one another but no one seems to notice this until the signal is given.  Closeups show Antony's handsome, feral face to be that of a sleepwalker. 

1 comment:

  1. Gielgud had contempt for Mason because Mason did things intended to make the other members of the triumvirate uncomfortable. Gielgud also gave the monstrous Brando a mocking look of utter fawning submission. I don’t know the play very well. I’ve only read it once and quickly/mindlessly. I think Cassius of the main three was the only one who did his role justice. Brando was too ostentatious and Mason too much an aesthete. The film had an overall reek of the locker room. I remember when my father read to me from Plutarch as a child in hotel rooms on a trip. Cassius was logical, rigid, honorable to a fault. Brutus was something more complex then, something which eluded us when we watched this film. There was just one peanut shell I found at the reference to his father “Old Brutus.” It was from the man himself thousands of years ago.