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Theorizing the Shakespeare Film Clip
In 1996, I went to see Al Pacino's Looking for Richard with a friend who, as the credits rolled, said, "That was wonderful! When do you think the film will come out?" Replying that this was the film, I realized that Pacino's movie exemplifies the growing influence of the Shakespeare film clip. Offering neither a film of the play nor a "making-of-the-production" documentary of a performance, Pacino sets out instead to create film clips, turning pedagogic practice on its head in order to show that only filmmaking can produce truly illuminating interpretation. 1 As the film co-opts the academic model—through professors who cannot answer scholarly questions and vehement objections from the co-director and cast about scholars getting time on screen—the juxtaposition of actor and academic implicitly asserts two points: that the practice of excerpting belongs to film and that clips ultimately serve the best interests of analyzing and understanding Shakespeare's play. However, responses to the film reaffirm the academic claim to the film clip. In fact, Neil Sinyard argues that Pacino is developing "a new cinematic form of the filmed essay." 2 This competition for control of the film clip signals the growing complexity of its cultural importance.
In Alan Armstrong's work since the 1980s the pedagogic strategy of juxtaposed clips appears fully elaborated and widely available. By editing together key scenes from videos of productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Armstrong has developed a "video-based teaching method" in order to save teachers the "once-daunting labor of fashioning an edited videotape." 3 His video entitled "Seven Othellos" reached a range of workshop audiences, drawing not only college and high-school [End Page 227] students but also teachers and general playgoers. Whereas Al Pacino designed Looking for Richard to discover and enact a single Richard III in order to illustrate what that character signifies today, "Seven Othellos" suggests several possible ways of performing the title figure. 4 Even with this difference, both formats validate character as one crucial Shakespearean truth revealed by film. As Armstrong notes, Laurence Fishburne's portrayal of Othello is "a fine starting point . . . for a discussion of the longer arc of the character's journey in the play." 5 This emphasis on character development echoes the Stanislavskian acting protocols stressed in Pacino's film.
However usefully the film clip provides insight into character, it also brings into the classroom more than we anticipate or plan. There are solid reasons for using such excerpts: they offer a useful length for juxtaposing different performances without devoting whole class periods to watching complete films or neglecting the performances most likely to engage our students. 6 Nonetheless, we need to attend more closely to the implications of incorporating fragments of filmed performance into class. Not only do our perceptions differ from those less experienced with Shakespeare and more attuned to film, but also our film choices signal assumptions about the relative importance of character, performance, and text. When film clips become part of our teaching, we benefit from a range of performances, from valuable access to our students' televisual critical skills and modes of attention, and from an implicit acknowledgment of Shakespeare's place (and our own) in media culture. Yet our editing can generate unexpected responses among our student audiences.
I seek to interrogate our too-easy acceptance of pedagogic clipping and to remedy our neglect of the varied perceptions that inform understanding of how a clip means. Not only does our entrance into the art of film editing situate us within a mediatized cultural moment, but using film clips acknowledges our students as part of that culture. 7 My point is not that this strategy is either good or bad but that academic clipping requires that we understand the ways in which excerpts function in our culture. Moreover, we need to assess what they contribute to our teaching beyond their obvious illustrative value even for professors who do not use clips...