Friday, February 7, 2014

The Scene with Many Faces: Romeo & Juliet Prologue

Well, I'm known for mocking remake-itis - but as I've written before, remakes are not all cheap cash-grabs, and they've been going on since Hollywood started, and some are quite worthy.

It struck me that this was as good a time as any to have us all look at 3 different versions of the same scene, as shown in 3 fine films. For this entry, I chose to use a moment that's been on my mind for ages. And so, I give you the opening prologue of Romeo and Juliet, as portrayed by Franco Zeffirelli (1968), Lloyd Kaufman (1996), and Baz Luhrmann (1996).

And, as traditional attempts go, Franco Zeffirelli does a perfectly serviceable job with the prologue - it's drab, but this is forgotten since the rest of the film is so well-done.

One thing that stands out is that the opening lines are over quickly - it takes 50 seconds for the narrator to finish speaking. Now, I have to assume that Franco wanted to get started as soon as possible, considering that his film is 138 minutes long. But the voiceover's style of reciting doesn't exactly pop, y'know? It's more the quiet, placid way one reads a bed-time story.

Similarly, the visuals are very simple, especially for a skilled director like FZ. They don't establish place or character, and if the intention is to build a mood... Then the intended effect is a bit bland, or murky - I don't feel bad claiming it, even though this picture did win Best Cinematography at the Oscars...

Don't get me wrong. Like a lot of teenage schoolboys, I greatly relished the day we saw RaJ '68 in class. It was a great production, and Olivia Hussey is naked and perfect - what 15 year-old boy doesn't love all that?

The real problem, then, comes when you look at the competing interpretations that followed 28 years later. Because it's kind of unfair.

I will always have a soft spot for the prologue from Lloyd Kaufman's release for Troma Studios, the wonderfully-titled Tromeo and Juliet. I like the advanced glimpses to scenes from later in the picture - aside from being quite fun, they do exactly what would have been done in Shakespeare's day: showing you short previews of what you'll witness in long form later.

I am not so impartial here, as I love the rough and dirty look of the film stock. It's filmed right in NYC's Times Square - pre-Disneyfication, mind you - so it would get all of my love for that alone. And what better cred can one display than to have Lemmy from Motörhead reciting the prologue's rhymes!?

As with the rest of Tromeo and Juliet, the demented sensibility is matched by skill and inventiveness in the presentation. I am only upset that I could find no perfect recording of this scene (I really tried), so you'll have to deal with the audio and video being a little out of synch.

Please skip to 1m23s for the actual start of the prologue.

Troma's release has a lot of splatter film gore, and it sure prepares you for that fact, doesn't it? We are shown our cast of characters, which is a nice traditional element, especially considering how many liberties were taken with the language and names. Additional lines have been added, although they seem to fit the piece well enough. Nor would I interpret their liberties (or perversions) as a lack of respect for the source material.

The warped names for the roles are silly (only Juliet's is unadulterated), and I suspect they're meant to emphasize the meta nature of this iteration of RaJ. Their cutesiness also takes a bit of the sting out of all the icky, gooey violence to come. And, if you turn to any of the Shakespearean works that you hopefully keep at home, you'll note that the prologue and the list of characters are presented together, before the play's actual beginning. I see no disrespect there...

Kaufman, a co-founder of Troma, creates a good, inventive prologue with a gloriously-subversive flair - while sometimes having the look of a stripped-down, DIY film. I look forward to reviewing T&J at some point, however, I can't say how I would have felt at seeing what Baz Luhrmann would unleash onto screens just 6 months later. Sure, I'd know I directed my effort first, and for just $350k, but still...

Still, nothing can make R+J not be the best of this bunch. I don't love the whole movie as much as others do - I've wondered if the first 10 minutes simply won the audience over (and with good reason) - but Baz gains so many points for creativity, and a brutally-overwhelming style:

Starts at 0:23

I am not the biggest fan of Luhrmann, but that is 2 minutes and 40 seconds of pure red-hot molten magic. It's bold to give us the lines twice - it risks being annoying, but the initial anchor's broadcast ties in to the on-the-scene news crew visual style of the second half. Please note how we first get a presentation that focuses on the audio elements, before getting an iteration that's predominantly visual, and then the actual text is plastered over the screen as we're bombarded by advanced frames of footage. It's genius.

Yes, as with Tromeo, we get a nice preview of scenes to come. This time, however, the presence of two speakers - male and female - also helps to foster the play's own sense of equality, whether it be the equal focus on the two protagonists of this story, or the social stations held by both the Capulets and the Montagues, or the reciprocal affection and devotion between the titular lovers, their children.

In fact, the oddest thing is that the most stylized and modernized take on this intro is also the most authentic. By repeating the dialogue twice - and then showing us the text as well, repeatedly - the audience has time to absorb and understand the words that are being spoken.
Two households, both alike in dignity/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene/From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
Baz used the prologue, like Kaufman did, to establish the present-day setting and location - this time by using a television. The music is simultaneously over-the-top funny and ironic and accurate - which, combined with the insane energy of the first scene, makes it feel like you're freebasing MTV. Basically, the whole thing is one huge, unlikely miracle.

In retrospect, you can understand why Zefferelli filmed his version in his specific way. For one thing, the play's popularity meant he had no need to hook the audience from the get-go. Also, putting aside the different sensibilities of 1968 and 1996, I'm sure Franco thought, "it's just the prologue; they're like credits." Shakespeare's power is in words, and the ones that begin Romeo and Juliet are as pretty and fun and mentally rewarding as anything else he's written. I can understand sitting back and simply letting the words do all the work.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life/Whose misadventured piteous overthrows/Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
Just add a shot of a sunrise at the end.

Yet that in itself is funny, as FZ would later direct Hamlet - in which one scene turns on the King being shocked by actors as they perform the preview for a play. Yeah, the wandering thespians enact the false King's own crime before him, in snippet form. He bolts because he gets emotional, and because they're about to portray the whole damn story all over again, only slower and longer.

Of the three directors, Kaufman, then, had the most revolutionary attitude to presenting this moment on film. He simply had about 1/50th the budget that Baz did. However, I doubt that Baz saw T&J until his own film was released, so there must be some source for these common elements - a strong pull with both male and female viewers, the absurdism, the fetishized violence - to have gripped two filmmakers in the exact same year.

Naturally, it is the magic of good story-telling that allows the audience to enjoy a movie (or play) when they know how it will end. Shakespeare rolled like that, and thus we talk about him 400 years after he died. All three films here are good - Tromeo is my favorite, although I should see Luhrmann's effort again - and I hope you got as much as I did out of considering how each picture handled this one scene...
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love/And the continuance of their parents' rage/Which, but their children's end, nought could remove/Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage/The which if you with patient ears attend/What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

PS - if you were wondering about the inspiration for this post's title, just read this.


  1. It occurs to me that the R&J prologue is as definitive, foundational, and useful as the Star Wars opening crawl. Both set out a story in an engaging way.

    The main difference: where Star Wars merely sets the stage, the R&J prologue tells us everything we are about to see: it is full of SPOILERS!!! The play is still tragic although we already know the ending. That's some good storytelling.

    1. It's a common practice in the 1600s, but today I would consider it a major achievement to keep the viewer rapt with a story you just laid out for them.

      You're right, of course. This scene is iconic, but it's doing much more than providing background...


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