Pleasantville (Ross 1998)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 32, Number 1, 2002
- pp. 85-86
- Additional Information
Film Reviews | Regular Feature days. The original formula calls for a figure that falls from on high due to a tragic flaw. That Shakespeare chose to make a Moorish warrior a tragic hero was perhaps a radical move for his time, but his warrior status nonetheless fit the tragic mold. Today we are no longer as apt to glorify members of our society in terms that require a solidified and socially stratified identity. Tim Blake Nelson's film clearly shows these historical influences. Yet, the bourgeois audacity necessary to posit a prep school basketball player as a tragic hero makes this film somehow quintessentially American. Compounding this is a tighter range of racial exploration necessitated by the formula. While earlier versions of Othello deal with what Samuel Huntington would call "the clash of civilizations," Nelson's adaptation is a localized civil commentary, which is all American. In the end, this film is not so much about race as it is about tax brackets. However, we must allow it to be what it is, a postmodern adaptation , where the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Long-hailed as the great harbinger of the Modern mind, Shakespeare undergoes fundamental changes when mixed with the postmodern critiques ofJean-François Lyotard. Without the metanarratives used toprop up various social orideological strata, there can be no tragic fall. Postmodernism flattens the landscape . Ironically, Odin (née Othello) who in the film is a slamdunkchampion has, as a character, no vertical—no depth. Where earlier versions of Othello transgress boundaries of genre and social status to pose problems that leave us questioning character motivation and the implication of audience, the postmodern sublime affect works its magic through sound and light. This is not a universal excoriation of the postmodern, but merely the demonstration that après-aesthetic art requires a different form of critique. What we must ask after in postmodernity is the viability of the fragment and of the surface. In particular, for film, the move across the modern/postmodern divide carries important implications for casting. In the past, Shakespearean tragedy has been a proving ground for actors who wanted to explore certain notions involving the depth character (leading to a long line of too-old actors playing the pre-teen characters ofRomeo and Juliet and the undergraduate Hamlet to name but a few). Those notions gone, or at least challenged, it is now more important that an actor negotiate the complexity of the postmodern surface. This means greater attention to the implements of surface—to fashion, diet, exercise and dental hygiene that are manipulated as part of a more visual exploration. Moreover, itrequires directors to present interesting bodies that can carry or offer physically expressive codes. Julia Stiles, who has played the Taming ofthe Shrew's Kate ("Cat" in 10 Things I Hate About You), Ophelia (in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet) and now Desdemona (here Desi), is a leading figure in this new form of Shakespeare. She wears it well. It does not matter that her love scene with Mekhi Phifer (Odin) is bereft of passion—in fact that is the way it must be. This 21st century story no longer involves a Moorish warrior just back from battle with the Turks in love with a woman who throws over her father to be with her lover. Those are the passions of high-calorie modernity. In this Othello, true anger comes from the steroids and cocaine that rich kids take to enhance performance . Malignity, in this sense, is no longer motiveless, but is instead the result of bad parenting. This film is not at all that bad when taken in context. It is, after all, a teen film. In particular, it does two things very well. First, it makes the Michael Cassio character as truly abhorrent as he should be—in fact, his bullying tendencies here are more than likely what held this film to a later release (representatives for the studio delayed the film out of respect for those suffering after Columbine). Secondly, it shows how much can be gained from different productions of Othello. In this latter sense, the film does as much to express the need for other...