Monday, November 14, 2011

What's wrong with "what if"?

For the past two weeks, I've borne the burden of being one of the only people I know who's seen Anonymous ... and also one of the only critics who seems to have liked it. It's got exactly a 50 on Metacritic, which is, technically speaking, "mixed or average reviews." But the critics who like it seem sheepish about that fact -- those who don't are a lot bolder, buoyed by the implicit support of millions of snarky moviegoers, many of whom have not even seen it.

The reasons not to like Anonymous write themselves. It's directed by Roland Emmerich, an infamous hack responsible for idiocy like 10,000 B.C. It posits the idea that William Shakespeare did not write his own plays -- not a new idea, but also not a widely accepted one. And it includes numerous suppositions about what could have happened with other characters, many involving scandalous things about Queen Elizabeth -- such as the idea that she had several bastard children.

But it's this last point that people seem to be taking the most issue with, and not specifically because it besmirches Elizabeth's name. The doubts that Shakespeare wrote his own plays go back to before such luminaries and skeptics as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud, and even the critics who didn't like the film can admit that it's an impressive accomplishment for its much-maligned director, who didn't seem capable of tackling such a subject. No, the critics looking to vent their aimless dislike for the film choose the fact that much of its action is imagined, and based only loosely on historical fact.

I say: So what?

Forget the fact that it's a movie, a work of fiction, and that it exists on the most fundamental level for the purpose of selling tickets. Loose interpretations of the facts, the altering of minor details, the rearranging of events in the chronology ... these things are to be expected in the attempt to make it work better as a narrative. And if done well, they contribute toward distilling the essence of truth, if not always literal truth.

So forget that we could allow this stuff for purely artistic reasons. What about the fact that pretty much every historical movie contains a sizable percentage of "what if"?

Since no one was present to record the conversations that occurred between 16th century noblemen, one must make guesses about the content of those conversations. It's the only way to go, unless you are so paralyzed with fears about inaccuracy that you stick to documenting only the things that exist in some kind of public record. And that would make for a pretty damn boring movie.

I guess what sticks in the craw of this film's detractors is how many liberties were apparently taken. To suggest that one of England's most celebrated queens spawned several fatherless children and jumped from bed to bed seems like sacrilege to some.

But if you parse that argument, it suggests that you should only make conservative guesses about things that may have happened with real people. If you play it safe, you are in the clear. But since when does a good drama play it safe? One of my favorite things about Anonymous is how much balls it has -- not only for its depiction of Elizabeth, but for suggesting that Shakespeare may have been just an opportunistic miscreant, wrapped up in unsavory deeds all the way up to and including actual murder. (This last is not stated outright but merely intimated.)

And why can't we take Shakespeare off this pedestal? I just finished listening to a podcast that's new to my repertoire called The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, where he talks to Anonymous screenwriter John Orloff about not only the incredibly ambitious structure of the script, but plenty of the issues related to the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Orloff, a so-called Oxfordian (which means he doubts the authorship), and Goldsmith, a so-called Stratfordian (which means he doesn't), go at it pretty well regarding some of the contentious facts about the case. In every instance I thought that Orloff -- who has studied this more than Goldsmith, granted -- scored a point off Goldsmith, convincing me even more than his movie did that Shakespeare was not who history says he was. Without going into too many of the specifics, let me just outline a few: 1) It is known that both Shakespeare's parents and his children were illiterate. 2) No document exists from that period that was written in his hand, making him a total anomaly among his contemporaries. 3) The plays imply a knowledge of French, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Latin, and Shakespeare never went to school. 4) A third of his plays take place in Italy and describe it in great detail, though Shakespeare never actually traveled there. 5) All the conditions that likely needed to have been in place for him to write those plays, were actually in place for a nobleman like Edward de Vere, who's played by Rhys Ifans in the movie.

What's more, there's an actual academic theory that de Vere and Elizabeth were lovers, which gives a scholarly justification to even some of the film's most controversial "what if"s.

But let's dial back down to just the idea of "what if"s. We allow "what if"s to enter into many of the movies we love, in two distinctly different ways: 1) What if it did actually happen this way? 2) What if it had actually happened this way? Let's not forget that one of the most celebrated films of the last few years, Inglourious Basterds, includes an alternate reading of World War II that we know did not happen -- it's simply fantasy. Hitler never died in a rain of gunfire at the hands of a couple American commandos who were also setting a movie theater on fire. Yet that film was nominated for best picture and showed up near the top of a number of best-of lists.

But you don't even have to offer wild examples of alternate histories, and you don't even have to go particularly far into the past. One of the most realistic films of the past ten years was 2006's United 93, which imagines what might have happened on board the doomed September 11th flight when the passengers revolted against the terrorists, bringing the aircraft down in a Pennsylvania field. There are only a few things known about what actually did happen -- such as Todd Beamer saying "Let's roll" -- so the rest is up to the imagination of a screenwriter. Sure, that screenwriter (Paul Greengrass) stayed pretty much within the bounds of what "probably" happened -- he didn't suggest that aliens beamed aboard the plane and took out the terrorists.

But is saying that Elizabeth might have had illegitimate children the same thing as saying that aliens intervened with the September 11th attacks? I don't think it is. I think it's very possible that Elizabeth had illegitimate children, and just because we don't know about them doesn't mean we can't infer their existence based on things we do know ... and that we can't write a script in which they do actually exist.

And let's not forget that there is already a very famous movie -- an Oscar winner, in fact -- that imagines a lot of things that Shakespeare might or might not have done. That movie, Shakespeare in Love, was met with almost universal acclaim. There was no controversy about what was depicted, or at least no controversy that reached the layman -- no one ever had a big problem with the idea that Shakespeare might have shaken a bad case of writer's block at the hands of a muse who won his heart.

And you know why that is? Because it was unambiguously positive toward Shakespeare. If you do doubt that Shakespeare wrote his plays -- which I certainly now do, though it does not affect my appreciation of them in the slightest, because I still find it incredibly impressive that someone wrote them -- what's wrong with suggesting that he may have had some unsavory traits? A man who accepted a deal like that, to be a front for works he didn't write, is morally compromised at the very least.

And if you're saying you only want positive interpretations of Shakespeare on film, then you are just being an intellectually dishonest film fan.

Oh, and remember how I briefly mentioned Sigmund Freud earlier? He too is a character in a film releasing in the fall of 2011, which will have to suppose a lot of things about him: David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method.

Okay, so you can't object to the idea that Shakespeare might not have written his plays, and you can't object to Emmerich's execution of the story, and you can't object to the details of the story -- unless you're simply saying you would have made other choices if you yourself were the screenwriter, and that's kind of splitting hairs.

So, like, what's your big problem?

Go see this thing before it whimpers out of theaters for good, with none of your money. Which it's worked harder than most films to deserve.

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