Monday, July 14, 2008

rosencrantz and guildenstern are dead, by tom stoppard

So last week we watched The Adventures of Mark Twain, a film that makes use of some famous characters from literature to tell its narrative. Our follow-up, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, similarly raids the storehouse of classic literature for characters—this time drawing from the works of Shakespeare, instead of the works of Twain.

There's one important difference between the two films, however. The Adventures of Mark Twain recontextualizes Twain's characters by writing them into an aeronautic adventure, one never penned by Twain. The central plot of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, by contrast, will be familiar to anyone who has read Hamlet.

For those of you who need the Cliff's Notes version, here it is: these two guys are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (played most excellently by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman):

These two are old pals of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who, at the outset of the story, has been acting pretty eccentric. They enter into the play because they're called in by the King to use their status as Hamlet's trusted friends to get close to him and figure out what his deal is.

This is kind of a sleazy request—imagine being called in by the stepfather of any of your close friends to do the same—but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree, and they meet up with Hamlet and basically attempt to perform some amateur psychoanalysis on him. Hamlet's much more deft than they are, however, and he spends most of this conversation engaging them in wordplay, feeding them disinformation, and generally running rings around them.

Eventually, he grows impatient with their duplicity, and he arranges, through his own act of duplicity, to have them both be executed by the King of England.

All of this material appears in Hamlet and it appears in the movie in a way that is more or less faithful to the play. For instance, in any scene where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak to Hamlet, the King, or the Queen, all of the dialogue is completely faithful to the dialogue that appears in the original.

What's interesting about this, though, is that these scenes are relatively few and far between. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't very major characters within Hamlet, and so they're off-stage a lot of the time. What director Tom Stoppard endeavors to do with this film is show what these characters are doing when they're off-stage. It's here where Stoppard breaks with the Shakespearean trappings: he has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak in a more modern idiom, play word-games, and indulge in anachronistic hijinks:

The end result is something of an absurdist, inverted version of Hamlet, in which the status of minor characters and main characters are reversed. Hamlet is a fabulous choice to do this with, because it is already metafictional and self-reflexive to begin with: even in its original form it contains a play-within-a-play, performed by a troupe of travelling actors, that retells some of Hamlet's backstory. Stoppard—who comes to the cinema via his background as a playwright and theatrical director—amps up this element, partially by loading the film with stage-sets and and audiences:

...and partly by having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the actors spend their "offstage" time together, with the end result is that we see even more staged versions of the Hamlet plot points:

All of this gamesmanship is a lot of fun, but there's something deeper in it than just play: it also invites reflection upon the nature of identity and existence. There's something about fiction in general that encourages us to muse upon whether we can trust our own ontological status or sense of reality—it has something to do, I think, with the way that fiction presents us with characters who have realistic thoughts, and internal consciousnesses that resemble our own, but who also have a clearly invented status. You don't have to ruminate on these ideas for long before you're reflecting upon mortality and fate, and, if the title didn't clue you in, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is very interested in indulging those reflections:

In my opinion, the film holds up less for its gags (some of which are very fine), but more for the sense of deep melancholy at its core. It's the rare example of a film that can be both absurd and yet also deeply affecting. Next week we'll be delving even deeper into theatrical existentialism, courtesy of the master, Samuel Beckett: we'll be watching an adaptation of his play Krapp's Last Tape.

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