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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Zefirelli vs. Luhrmann

Back in 1996, when the newer version "Romeo and Juliet" was in production, I was very excited about the concept of an updated version of the classic. I do believe that the story and characters are timeless, and felt that the play would work well in a modern setting. As an English teacher, I was also enthusiastic about having an interesting new interpretation to discuss with my students. 

I remember sitting in the theater watching the opening prologue. It was amazing - maybe one of the most "epic" things I've ever seen on screen. "Wow," I thought - this is going to be really intense, really incredible...

And then the gas station scene. After watching this scene the first time (and I've probably seen it 20 times since, which has only served to confirm my opinion) it became pretty clear that the director and actors had no idea what was really happening in the scene. The actors are screaming and yelling for no reason. There's a difference between passion and screaming, but this scene (and many other parts of the film) fail to make that distinction. It also attempts to be funny, but only manages to be goofy. The scene is colorful, but distractingly so - shooting arcade style effects, lightning-fast editing, and a very strange mix of silly sound effects and sight gags all take away from the severity and gravity of the Capulet/Montague conflict.

In watching the Zeffirelli (1969) version, you get the idea that this conflict affects everyone in Verona - the woman crossing the street with her baby, the merchants selling produce on the street, the combatants who lose their lives in the fight. In the newer version, a gas station blows up, and maybe causes a traffic jam. True, this is flashier, but doesn't have the large-scale societal impact of the fight scene in the original version.

And speaking of fight scenes - the 1969 version is more "violent", really - characters hurt, rather than scream at, each other. The fight begins in an understated way, with characters joking and taunting each other, and escalates in a much more believable fashion than the fever-pitched 1996 opener.

Ultimately, the 1996 version doesn't give the viewers - young people, in particular, very much credit. It seems to imply that all dialogue must be screamed for anyone to pay attention, and that flash and style can make up for real acting. At the very least, the actors could have taken the time to understand what is actually happening, and why their characters were saying what they were saying.

I really wanted to like the 1996 movie, I really did. Hopefully, a new version will come along sooner or later that can breath some new life into this classic in a truly meaningful way.

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