John Frow wrote “Texts are not structures of presence but traces and tracings of otherness. They are shaped by the repetition and the transformation of other textual structures. ” (Frow, ‘Intertextuality and Ontology’ from Worton and Still Intertextuality: Theories and Practises 1990. pg. 46) The “original” Shakespearean version of Romeo and Juliet (written between 1594 and 1596) indeed contains traces of otherness, almost as heavily as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation. When a modern day audience goes to see a ‘new’ film they carry along certain expectations.
Some of the situations of the film may be familiar, we may be able to anticipate the ending; the characters should not be too different from people we meet day to day, and they may speak lines that we have heard before in other films. However usually we demand a new story. The Elizabethan audience differed in that they were happy to be given a familiar story so long as the dramatist’s treatment was new and individual.
The basic plot for Romeo and Juliet can be found as early as the third century A. D. Shakespeare relies almost entirely on a narrative poem entitled The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke (published in 1662). In turn the English poem is itself a translation of a popular prose fiction by Bandello (published in 1554). Even this derives from Italian stories, particularly one written by Luigi da Porto (1530). Baz Luhrmann’s film version is aware of the intertextual history of the story and makes clear in its title that this is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Where Was The 1996 Romeo And Juliet Filmed
Luhrmann dealt freely with the material provided from Shakespeare’s play in much the same way that “Shakespeare helped himself to portions of Brooke’s poem and made whatever alterations he thought fit. ” (Gill, ‘A Couple of Unfortunate Lovers’ from Romeo and Juliet. 1990. pg. ix). The cinematic experience of the story, although different from watching the play in a traditional theatre, or even any other film version for that matter, retains the intensity and level expression that Shakespeare originally put into the script, which could not be expressed through as limited a medium as theatre.
Luhrmann takes the very old and well-known play and gives it a modern context and setting while retaining most of the original language. He employs an especially unconventional style of film making, using jump cuts frequently throughout the film, upsetting the continuity while adding to the intensity. It could be said that the jump cut technique is the heartbeat of the film; speeding up with the intense scenes and slowing down as the action dissipates.
Shakespeare employed a similar technique through his use of narrative when adapting from the Brooke version. Brooke gives the lovers three months of marriage while Shakespeare permits only one night to heighten the intensity and speed up the action. Lurmann employs further techniques to speed up the action; he literally speeds up the film to intensify certain scenes. The sequence at Verona beach (itself an intertextual reference to the setting of the original play; Verona, Italy) is an ideal example of this intensification.
Tybalt challenges Mercutio to a one-bullet “turn and draw” gunfight (the closest modern equivalent to a sword fight since there is at least some skill involved) filmed using a Hong Kong action movie/Jackie Chan-esque method of cinema characterised by a seemingly absurd speeding up of action sequences and close-up, followed by extreme close up of the subject, in this case Abra (or in the play Abram) Capulet.
There is another sense in which the writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds – they’ve already been invented; only a limited number of combinations are possible; the most unique ones have been thought of already… Hence, once again, pastiche: in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum. ” (Federic Jameson (1983) Postmodernism and Consumerism Society).
In the opening sequence at the petrol station further inter-generic references are created when Tybalt extinguishes his cigarette with the heel of his elaborate cowboy boot behind a soundtrack characteristic of a confrontation scene from a 1950’s spaghetti western. The film pauses to introduce each character as they appear, with further western-style music and their names and some information about them written on the screen. This almost serves as a program one might receive were they to see the story in it’s play form, listing all the leading characters.
In this same scene Shakespeare’s words, in this case ‘sword’, are recast (as is typical in the film) as a gun trademark. Old Montague tells his wife “Give me my long-sword, ho! ” which in the film is recast as a heavy, long, old fashion rifle which would be relatively ineffective against the youths shining, new, light-weight, automatic pistols in the same way that in Elizabethan times old Montague’s heavy, long, old fashion sword would have been ineffective against the youths of the day.
Good swordsmanship is replaced in the film by fancy gun trickery and Shakespearian dialect in general is placed in a modern day context, or spoken with an American intonation, for example when Benvolio refers to Romeo as “Cous” in the play it is mainly because he is his cousin, but the film, or at least the actor, interprets the word as more of a general street slang kind of greeting, as in “What up Cuz? “. Luhrmann places several posters and billboards in the film depicting the word ‘L’amour’ (meaning ‘love’) as the coca cola icon.
This is as much an intertextual reference to his other films and plays, as to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “… if you look at the lovers (from his play, La Bohemme), they’re clearly singing in front of the “L’amour” sign. If you look in Strictly Ballroom, the lovers are in front of a giant, industrial Coke sign. If you look in Romeo + Juliet, the “L’amour” sign interpreted in the Coke version is actually in Romeo + Juliet. If you look at Moulin Rouge the lovers are again singing in front of “L’amour. There’s actually cross-referencing and coding through all of the works of these ten years of work of the Red Curtain Trilogy. ” In depicting a concept like love in such a commercial, superficial manner, as if Love is being advertised to us, the director may be making a point of the commercialisation of love through texts since Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.
It is as if the concept of love has been lost under a thousand cheap romance novels, soap operas and Meg Ryan movies. Perhaps in making the film he is forced to treat love as a commodity as if to say, ‘L’amour’ is French for Coke, and he must try to sell ‘love’ to his audience. This theme is expressed in the trailer for the film (the one found on the DVD version) when the voice over speaks the opening lines of chorus in a dramatic American accent typical of action movies of the time.
One can not help but get the impression that love is being sold to us in the same way that an action movie sells violence. These same lines are used in the beginning of the film however they are expressed through a news reporter on an old television screen. It is important to note that before the news reporter appears, the very first image of the film is of a blank television screen in the centre of the shot, with nothing else but black surrounding it. This could be interpreted similarly to the way the ‘L’amour’ sign is, as an over-saturation of media.
It presents an image of culture as having an over-reliance on televisual imagery, a culture where children are often raised not by their parents but by television. One is compelled to ask, ‘what effect is this having on their concepts of a thing like love if children’s biggest influence on the matter is not mum and dad’s love but Meg Ryan’s? ‘. Baz Luhrmann himself said “More progressively, like Shakespeare, I’ve come to believe in trying to speak to many different people in many different ways. From the child, to the adult, to the simple person, to the complex. (Baz Luhrmann in an interview entitled “Simply Baz” on the website ‘The Digital Bits’, created 3/6/02). The portrayal of the news reader is an attempt to introduce the audience to the clashing of genres to ensue, and is also an indication of Luhrmann’s intent to reject dominant paradigms, in this case the portrayel of a news reader as black and female. This intent is reflected throughout the film as Luhrmann adopts a black American policeman as the upholder of authority and order in Verona Beach, and Mercutio, traditionally held as a model of honour, is portrayed as a black American.
Following the news reporter, in true Shakespearean fashion, the audience is presented with a preview of the succeeding plot through a muddle of newspaper articles with headlines from the ‘original’ text. Rushkoff argues that what might seem like a muddle of random images for viewers unaccustomed to the MTV style is quite comprehensible to those who have been raised on a more discontinuously styled media (Rushkoff, 1994, pg 130). Today’s post-modern world is much more aware of the presence of other textual structures in stories which is why the credits at the end of films are becoming longer and longer.
If the Elizabethans were as aware of this as we are, Romeo and Juliet the play would end with ‘story by Luigi da Porto, written by Arthur Brooke, stage adaptation by William Shakespeare, produced by… Queen Elizabeth? ‘ Today nothing is original, even this essay has probably been written before. Luhrmann, in true post-modern style, is very aware of the intertextual relations of his film and the film too is self conscious of them. Luhrmann took an old, familiar story and made it relevant to his time, ironically this happens to be the same thing that the person he ‘copied’ did.