It would seem that one of the major tasks facing filmmakers and story tellers of all stripes today is to find relevance between the story being told and the lives we lead. This search for relevance is not simply a way to achieve funding and production for a story, it is, more importantly, a way to connect the audience to the tale being told.
The all important connection can be through such obvious means as utilizing current events that the audience is familiar with. This was done to great effect in The Queen, where director Steven Frears reveals the very foreign and bizarre lives of the British royal family during the events which unfolded after the death of Lady Diana Spencer.
Another method might be to set a movie in a well known location. This worked wonderfully in Robert Altman’s classic expose of Hollywood, The Player. There are countless ways to create relevance.
In Looking for Richard, director Al Pacino seeks to show the contemporary world that one of the most important ways to create relevance is through raw human emotions such as greed, envy, jealousy, pride, fear, and the lust for power. Pacino takes his love of Shakespeare to the masses and finds that many of them don’t recognize the relevance of the Bard Poet in the modern world. Rather than simply explaining why the works of William Shakespeare have survived the test of time, Pacino takes Richard III, Shakespeare’s most performed play and breaks it into meaningful bits that clearly demonstrate the relevance to how we feel and think today.
Richard III, is a play that tells us what it means to be human. Pacino points out that one of the most fascinating things about Richard is his conceit and power, first Richard tells us what he will do, next he does it, and finally, he gloats over his accomplishment. This deformed man, who at the beginning of the story is seemingly powerless and impotent within England, uses deceit and trickery to become the most powerful man in his world. Richard’s strength is to utilize the weakness of others in order to get them to do what he wants. Shakespeare’s strength as a storyteller, lies in his ability to clearly show the human weaknesses of his characters. These weaknesses have not disappeared from the human race in the time since Shakespeare wrote and this is why his tales still hold so much relevance to the modern world.
Pacino tells us that people are intimidated by Shakespeare. Most people who haven’t read Shakespeare’s work think of it as a higher educational standard. They think of it as something that is separate from the realities of their day to day existence. Nothing could be further than the truth. Pacino shows us how this one story holds universal truths that apply today as much as they did in the past. There is relevance, but there is also a gap in understanding. Even actors are intimidated by Shakespeare, Pacino shows us this in the opening shot when he makes his first appearance on stage, looks to the audience, and sees William Shakespeare watching him. He stops mid line and utters the word of ultimate intimidation “Fuck.”
“Actors,” Pacino says, “are the proud inheritors of the understanding of Shakespeare.” Then he goes on to show us that often, the actors don’t understand Shakespeare’s words any better than people in the streets. What they understand is the meaning, the feeling, and most importantly, the relevance. Certainly, the words of Shakespeare can cause confusion. Shakespeare was writing in a form of English that no one actually speaks any more. Utilizing an iambic pentameter and the blossoms of metaphor, it is easy to miss the subtle nuances of meaning, but if you ‘tune your ear to the rhythm of the poetry’, you suddenly find yourself immersed in meanings that go beyond simple definitions.
There is no need for intimidation by Shakespeare, there is need for tuning ourselves into the emotions that Shakespeare unleashes.
“The World is a Stage,” Shakespeare wrote. In this simple phrase we are forced to look at the hidden motivations that lie below the surface interactions we experience each day. We are forced to ask not only what part others are playing, but also what is the role they have created for us, or that we have created for ourselves. The meaning can be simple or it can be complex. This is what Pacino wants to show us as he bounces from shot to shot sometimes in a baseball cap, sometimes in the costume of Richard, sometimes bearded, and sometimes not; but always in character. The character is as relevant in the streets of New York City as it is on the stage in London. Richard shows us without a doubt, that those in power have contempt for everything they promise. He doesn’t need words to do so, just as he doesn’t need words to betray his promises, but the words he speaks are what give him such power.
Pacino succeeds in his quest to show the relevance of Shakespeare to the modern world. He also succeeds in demonstrating that in order for a story to survive the harsh currents of time it has to be about more than a current event or a specific locale, it must deal with something that is unchanging. For it is our emotions, our motivations, our inner selves that have not changed even thought we might wish that they had. As Richard III lies dying he says “I hate myself for hateful deeds”. One might imagine these words being uttered in a presidential palace by one who has stolen power, destroyed lives, started wars, and had children murdered in the name of freedom. Shakespeare’s stories hold relevance today, but ultimately in real life, Richard III would probably be as impenitent as George W. Bush.