*. There was a time back in the 1980s when I was a little more into the local cultural scene that I attended several “performance pieces” on campus. It was hard to pin down exactly what these were, as they just involved people moving about on a stage, not saying much. They wore costumes and sometimes danced or arranged themselves in tableaux. And there was music. And there was a lot of stagecraft, with odd set design and the imaginative use of strange props.
*. You came out of these things invigorated, sometimes laughing at what it all might have meant but usually wanting to talk about what you’d just seen. They were creative and fun even if they didn’t usually make a lot of sense.
*. I saw Prospero’s Books at the cinema when it came out and it fit in with this kind of aesthetic at the time. Today it takes me back in a way that’s nostalgic. It’s stagey, but not in a traditional way. Instead it’s like the fluid stage of the performance pieces, constantly being transformed and unscrolled by director Peter Greenaway’s beloved tracking shots.
*. It’s a Renaissance film, not in the sense so much of Greenaway’s inspiration in period art and the acres of naked flesh on display, but for being a melding of a variety of forms. Literary, being an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with John Gielgud (aged 86!) as Prospero delivering almost all the lines until the final act. But it’s also a movie filled with striking visuals, music (the operatic score is by Michael Nyman), special film effects, and modern dance (Caliban is played by Michael Clark, who strikes a lot of strained contortions). More than a masque, it’s a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk that combines as many arts as possible. Most of them quite successfully.
*. It’s also a film of paradoxes. Text is central, with the title taken from the small library of arcane books that Prospero took with him into exile. But as it’s a paean to books, of reading and writing, at the same time it blows pages of text to the wind and refashions the play as a sort of interior monologue: Prospero’s dream, or perhaps just his reading of the play he is ultimately revealed as writing.
*. Other paradoxes abound. Caliban is a monster in the play, but here he takes an ideal athletic form. The “painterly” compositions are often quite ugly, at least to my eyes, and always in motion, either scrolling or being deconstructed into screens-within-screens. Nudity is both a classical or Renaissance ideal and also something human and sloppy. Dangling man parts go marching alongside imperfect buttocks and breasts, and because it’s 1991 people still have body hair. Instead of evoking high art one thinks of The First Nudie Musical.
*. In other words, it’s high art that walks a line, consciously I think, with camp. Just get a load of the width of those lace ruffs, and the sky-high platform heels the courtiers wear. The perfect camp touch of taking everything just that little bit too far.
*. But I don’t think it’s camp. The Tempest is a play about magic, and that’s what I think Prospero’s Books is all about. Not just the magic of Shakespeare’s language, but the magic of theatre and film and their conjuring of a world of make believe that we buy into even as we’re drawn to notice how unreal it is. Like any good magician, Prospero/Greenaway knows that we want to be fooled. Suspension of disbelief isn’t a trick, but the price of admission. Once the show starts belief has already been dismissed.
*. That doesn’t mean we can’t be critical though. One thing about novelty movies like this is that the novelty wears off and when there’s no story being told (as here), or when the way it’s presented is more intellectually than emotionally involving (as here), you get tired of it pretty quickly. Even knowing the play well I found Prospero’s Books got a bit trying and I don’t think anyone not knowing the play would be that interested in it at all. It would only work as spectacle or circus.
*. But it’s a critical maxim of some validity that you have to judge the success of any work of art based on its own terms, on what it sets out to do. Seen this way, Prospero’s Books should be considered a triumph. I think it’s exactly the movie Greenaway wanted to make, an expression of a very personal vision. It is, however, resolutely “not for everyone.” Or, as Greenaway put it, “I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself.”
*. Indeed, I imagine it’s for very few people. “Shakespeare” is by no means synonymous with “art house,” or at least it shouldn’t be, but there’s no denying this is “art-house Shakespeare,” or Greenaway’s Shakespeare, all the way. It comes to the same thing: a treat for those with a taste for either bard, and a trial for everyone else.