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It has been nearly four hundred years since Shakespeare's fellow actors and theatrical partners, John Heminge and Henry Condell, addressed the First Folio of Shakespeare's collected works "To the great Variety of Readers. From the most able, to him that can but spell," yet those who know and love Shakespeare best are still trying to convince the mainstream populace that Shakespeare is for everyone.

This point is made clear by the plethora of large-scale, English language Shakespearean films which have surfaced in the last decade, including one recent film that takes a fictional look at Shakespeare in Love. However, actor Al Pacino has confronted the issue more directly than any other filmmaker in his labor of love, Looking for Richard, a self-proclaimed "docu-drama type thing" which aims at making Shakespeare's work more accessible and less intimidating to the person on the street by recording and annotating a performance of Richard III on several illuminating levels.

Heminge and Condell also warn that if you read Shakespeare and "do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him," and it is precisely this problem Pacino sets out to remedy: if people understand him, they will come. So Pacino markets Shakespeare to the timorous, uninterested, and unsuspecting masses. Pacino, like Heminge and Condell, mixes a perhaps crass appeal to all citizens to buy or invest in Shakespeare with high praise of Shakespeare's artistic value and an invitation to examine his work for personal enrichment.

The intended audience for this film seems to be the average American: a creature known, at least among the cultural elite, for its inability to comprehend or identify irony and its disinterest in any form of culture that might ask it to think on an intellectual or artistic level of any depth. Pacino declares that he intends to communicate to the American public that Shakespeare "is about how we feel and how we think today." In other words (or in those of Jan Kott), Shakespeare is our contemporary, and his works hold truths and "meanings," an often repeated word in the film, that can influence, inspire, and move us today.

And why should the great masses of the United States care about the work of the great English Bard of Avon? Pacino credits Shakespeare with the capability of inspiring higher moral values and greater truthfulness in language, which he accomplishes through interviews with theatre and film actors and with people walking down the street. In order to bring Shakespeare into the public arena, he takes his camera and microphone into the streets of New York City and asks random passers-by questions like "What do you think of Shakespeare?" and "Is there anything that hinders your enjoyment of Shakespeare?" (to which one man answers: "Yeah. It's boring.") But Pacino's coup de theatre in the street is an interview with a snaggletoothed, African-American panhandler who tells Pacino the following:

When we speak without feeling, we get nothing from our society. We should speak like Shakespeare. We should introduce Shakespeare into our academics. You know why? 'Cause then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That's why it's easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other. We don't feel for each other. If we were taught to feel, we wouldn't be so violent.

When Pacino, off camera, asks him if he thinks Shakespeare helps us feel, the man declares soulfully, "He did more than help us: he instructed us." It is a public service message to Americans, and despite the hyperbolic claims, this oration seems to come from the mouth of a sage of the street, serving Pacino's purposes well.

In Looking for Richard, Pacino is marketing Shakespeare. In an encounter with some small children on a sidewalk at the start of the film, Pacino asks them, "You know Shakespeare? William Shakespeare?," then announces with a gleam in his eye, "We're peddling him on the streets." And indeed he is, but more importantly, he is peddling Shakespeare on film, in a film that will reach millions for the cause of spreading the gospel of Shakespeare.

However, Pacino is not selling the sacred Shakespeare of the pedant here; it is the Shakespeare of the actor and of the people, a point he makes vividly clear by choosing two very stuffy-looking British scholars, Barbara Everett and Emrys Jones, to represent the academic approach to Shakespeare. Ensconced in their book-lined offices, these pedants gaze into the camera and pontificate occasionally on the fine points of textual interpretation and historical background of Richard III.

This sterile academic environment is juxtaposed with the incredibly vibrant and sometimes even volatile interaction of the actors as they perform, argue about characterization, and revel in the sound of the language itself. At one point, Pacino's assistant Frederic Kimball angrily insists that Pacino knows more about Richard III than any Ivy League scholar, declaring "Actors truly are the possessors, the proud inheritors of the understanding of Shakespeare!" The message is clear: Shakespeare's text is meant to be performed; it is a living, breathing thing in the mouths of actors from generation to generation. It is not meant to be stuck in a huge, unwieldy leather-bound volume, placed proudly on the library shelf, and never opened.

Although the performative nature of Shakespeare is emphasized repeatedly by many respected scholars, such as Stanley Wells and Peter Holland, Pacino chooses to simplify the relationship between the scholar and the play in order to reveal how the cultural elite have in some senses buried Shakespeare's true significance to and connection with the average person; in essence, the academics have claimed Shakespeare as their own "property." Pacino tells us in Looking for Richard that we should be looking for Shakespeare's Richard III in performances of the play, in the world around us, and in ourselves, not on the bookshelf.

Al Pacino uses several devices and methods to help the film audience discover a Richard they can recognize and understand. Meanwhile, however, the audience is also getting a more personal view of this traditionally taciturn star. And perhaps looking for Pacino in his own docu-drama is apropos considering he is Looking for Richard in Richard III. In fact, in Time magazine Richard Corliss criticized the film for being "naive" and "wildly self-indulgent," asserting that in approaching Looking for Richard, "You come Looking for Richard and find Al."

Nevertheless, I believe that the cinematic and narrative structures of Looking for Richard reveal and clarify Pacino's project. Typical of documentary film, Pacino utilizes a hand-held camera a good deal and conducts man-on-the-street interviews, which are perhaps more reminiscent of the evening newscast than anything else. By jumping between the general Joe on the street and stage and film luminaries like John Geilgud and Vanessa Redgrave, Pacino accomplishes a levelling or equalizing. Although most of the people he runs into on the street are clueless and apathetic about Shakespeare, the actors who have clearly invested time and energy in the Bard's work are passionate about and inspired by it. They did it and so can you. Pacino is communicating that investing in Shakespeare is worthwhile for everyone; Shakespeare can enrich your life.

There are two sets of parallel scenes that epitomize this technique and also give a good feel for the tone and mission of the film. The first set of scenes begins with the introduction of the character of Margaret into the polished, full-costume film of the play, then cuts away to the actors discussing their interpretation of the character, while a disembodied voice-over of Vanessa Redgrave decries the difficulty of comprehending Shakespeare in a world in which "for centuries . . . word has been divorced from truth." We are given a quick shot of Redgrave being interviewed, then cut directly to our original New York sage on the street whose words profoundly mirror those of Redgrave in the vernacular.

The panhandler's assertion that, "If we felt what we said, we'd say less and mean more," is complemented by Howard Shore's intensifying musical score swelling in the background. Pacino is highlighting his point once again: The two individuals in those last few seconds of film could not be more dissimilar; they are of different nationalities, races, genders, social classes, and educational levels, yet they have arrived at the same conclusion about language and meaning and they both believe that studying Shakespeare's language could help remedy the ills of our postmodern society. The symmetry of these scenes is ineluctable and poignant.

The second set of scenes feature Frederic Kimball raving about actors being the true "possessors" of the Shakespearean text in a memorable quotation I have already given in this paper. He insists that the actor, not the scholar, is the most intimate with Shakespeare. The scene then cuts to the office of Emrys Jones. Perhaps the symmetry of the scenes speak for itself, but it is worth pointing out that in taking the omniscient scholar down a few notches, Pacino again is effecting an equalizing of the disciples of Shakespeare. None of us can claim him for our sole property; the nature of the Shakespearean text itself works to evade this type of exclusive ownership.

Pacino brilliantly implements an MTV-esque film technique of quick cuts between disparate locations and activities, creating what one critic calls "a dazzling mosaic of comic documentary and dramatic performance." The lack of the classic Hollywood establishing shot during these fast-moving sequences is edgy, avant-garde filmmaking and often leaves the audience disoriented and unsure of its location (could be New York, London, Stratford, etc.); yet somehow this technique works in a sophisticated manner to emphasize Pacino's main focus: to demythologize the Bard, or as one critic put it, to attempt "demystification through deconstruction." Location is irrelevant; understanding is all.

However, not everyone agrees that this technique aids comprehension. Veteran film critic Stanley Kauffman writes that the "fragmentary" technique of the film, rather than clarifying the plot and meaning of Richard III, leaves him feeling as if he has been "showered with Shakespeare confetti"; although, he admits that it is the "confetti feeling that keeps the picture entertaining." Nevertheless, I believe these staccato cuts between Pacino with his cast discussing the interpretation of the play, the actors in rehearsal, interviews, and the full-costume, polished Hollywood film version of select scenes from the play express formally both the confusion which can ensue when trying to comprehend Shakespeare and the rich, multifarious quality of the Shakespearean text.

Despite his call for people to become involved in the "art" of Shakespeare, Pacino markets this film to the masses via some traditional Hollywood routes. Most notably, Looking for Richard has an astounding barrage of cameo appearances by big name celebrities. Besides Pacino himself, stars such as Kevin Spacey, Kevin Kline, Winona Ryder, James Earl Jones, Kenneth Branagh, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sir John Gielgud appear in the film, a strange and wonderful gathering.

Another Hollywood move Pacino makes is to sexualize the wooing scene between Richard and Lady Anne to an extent that is neither textual nor plausible. Winona Ryder plays an insipid and suddenly sexual Anne who is willing to passionately kiss and caress Richard over her father-in-law's coffin, then retreat coquettishly back to the funeral procession. Pacino claims earlier in the film that he wants to cast someone young enough to believe "Richard's rap," but this scene seems absurd to me, nonetheless. Perhaps the issue is that Pacino has always wanted to kiss Ryder. Well, now he has. But couldn't he have done it off camera? So much for intellectual Hollywood.

It seems evident by the frenzied cutting from one thing to another that Pacino is trying to appeal to the younger American audience, raised on the quick-cut style of MTV videos and accustomed to playing frenetically-paced computer games. In my experience in the classroom, having taught this film to approximately eighty students primarily between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, Looking for Richard holds their attention and is largely successful in imparting the message that Shakespeare is relevant and comprehensible to them. However, the critics of this film have imparted some scathing sentiments on the matter. James Bowman of The American Spectator writes,

Al Pacino's Looking for Richard. . . really ought to be called "Richard goes to Sesame Street." It is a film based on the by-now old-fashioned notion that Shakespeare can be made "relevant" to the happening youth of the nineties--kids who might not, were it not for Al and his pals in Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, ever bother to tear themselves away from MTV. But I doubt the efficacy of slicing and dicing Shakespeare and serving him up in quick cuts to pander to a bunch of no-mind slackers. They probably won't like him anyway, and they won't realize that the real Shakespeare takes work--though not so much work as they might imagine. He cannot be made into a music video with old-fashioned language, and people who suppose he can are in for a big shock in the unlikely event that they ever put themselves in a way to encounter the real thing.

The "real thing," or as the Bard might say "the thing itself," unaccommodated Shakespeare: I hate to ask the pedantic and obvious question, but is there such a beast? It is certainly difficult if not impossible to determine absolutely if there is a "real thing" when it comes to Shakespeare's text, considering that so many of the plays exist in multiple versions printed during Shakespeare's lifetime or were printed for the first time in the First Folio of 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death.

But Bowman is not alone in his condescension to Pacino's unorthodox Shakespearean docu-drama, Donald Lyons of Commentary magazine calls Looking for Richard, "Another misguided attempt to make Shakespeare intelligible to the groundlings, . . . directed by Al Pacino, starring Al Pacino, with narration written by Al Pacino." Lyons, like many other critics, finds the film self-indulgent, reducing the whole project to a vain farce:

[Pacino] decided to film his efforts to get a film made of Richard III, assembling a cast of cronies and colleagues to discuss the text over spaghetti and donuts and then dress up and perform it. . . . And so the film, basically a document confirming the obsession of the actors with themselves, is finally left looking at its own navel. Despite its high- minded posturing about the Bard's essential communicability, Looking for Richard actually demonstrates the incompatibility of Shakespeare with a certain self-important American mode of communicating: namely, Method acting.

It is indeed true that this film focuses on the process the actors engage in to put together a Shakespearean film; however, it is also obvious from the interweaving of the rehearsals and explanations of certain play scenes with the "finished" film of the same scene that Pacino is subordinating the actor's process to the narrative timeline of the play. The film presents us with the actor's initial preparation for performing a specific piece, then participation in rehearsals of various levels of formality, and finally their performance of the play is revealed, but the stages of this process are all shown simultaneously in Looking for Richard because Pacino is most interested in clearly communicating the plot of the play.

It is revealing that over eighty hours of footage was shot over four years for this project, and between the three film editors and Pacino, Looking for Richard was cut and shaped into the highly organized 112-minute end product. Pacino worked on the film between acting jobs, and he admits its completion marked the "culmination of a personal journey" for him (Pacino newsletter).

However, it is not so much the documentation of Pacino's inner journey that we see, but rather an explanatory guide through the play, beginning with the reasoning behind even attempting a project of this sort and moving through the acts of the play. Screen legends announce the sections of the film, starting with "the question" (which transmorphs into "the quest"), then "the play," "Act I," etc., until the final section entitled "the battle," introduces Bosworth Field.

Interpolated between and during play acts are sections focused on elements of performance and interpretation, such as "casting the actors," "getting in deeper," "the birthplace of shakespeare," and "iambic pentameter," but these clearly serve as footnotes and tutorials for Richard III. Moreover, "The play's the thing," and Pacino privileges its narrative over everything else by tying the sequential progression of the film to Shakespeare's plot instead of the actor's process. While there may be some self-indulgence on the part of the actors, Pacino manages to stick to his purpose, and the vast majority of my students agree.

Lastly, I would like to consider the potential for Looking for Richard to be used as a learning tool successfully in the college classroom. Pacino may be a great actor, but is he a good teacher? Many critics seem to think so. One pays Pacino a backhanded compliment: "As for Pacino himself, he might be a better teacher of Shakespeare 101 than an interpreter of Richard III's lead role"; and another effuses, "Pacino has crafted a remarkably coherent and compelling movie, a vividly annotated Shakespeare. It is as if Scarface had suddenly turned into the world's coolest English teacher. . . . Pacino's Shakespeare class explodes into pure movie-making." The sardonic Stanley Kauffman, who calls the film an entertaining "romp-and-tribute" and a "wacky busman's holiday," disagrees with these opinions and claims that "textual explication doesn't seem to me the basic reason for this film. It's a very slim gloss of the play"; instead, he believes Pacino is really only selling himself: "I know of no previous instance in which a film star wanted to assure his film public that he was more than a film star." Kauffman is another believer in the "vanity project" theory.

But critics aside, my own students, who must serve as my guinea pigs, have responded overwhelmingly positively to the use of Looking for Richard in the classroom. Almost all of the nearly eighty students I subjected to this movie wrote that it helped them understand and appreciate Richard III, and several students said that Looking for Richard motivated them to seek out other Shakespearean films.

A surprising number of students even expressed to me that without seeing Looking for Richard beforehand, Laurence Olivier's 1955 film of Richard III would have been completely inscrutable. Mission accomplished for Pacino! He seems to be speaking their language. My students also had some insights into the film that the critics seemed to miss. Rather than viewing the actor's process portrayed in the film as narcissistic and self-indulgent, students remarked that watching actors they respected struggle with the interpretation and understanding of Shakespeare made them more comfortable with their own struggle for comprehension. The students empathize with the often scruffy and haggard-looking cast as they grapple with the text. A few students commented that seeing these celebrities pursue Shakespeare with so much passion, and obviously for little remuneration, has stimulated them to look at Shakespeare in a new and more exciting light. (At one point Alec Baldwin jokes, "We're doing this for forty dollars a day and all the doughnuts we can eat.")

The human connection Pacino successfully makes between the lives of the actors and those of the audience members (my students) mirrors the metaphor connecting the actor performing on stage and the person living this "whirly-gig" life that pervades Shakespeare's canon. Pacino beautifully illustrates this metaphor by opening and closing the film with a slow motion, long shot of a Gothic-style cathedral while a deep, male voice-over chants Prospero's legendary speech, "Our revels now are ended. . . ."

Although the majority of my students found Looking for Richard entertaining and helpful, there was, of course, not a perfect consensus: one student sarcastically effuses, "This film is a true jewel," and another drolly states that "Looking for Richard was nothing more than a movie based on Cliffs Notes." In fact, a number of students have compared the film to Cliffs Notes, calling it a video version of the same. It is clear that some students feel that the "Cliffs Notes" style of explication in Looking for Richard is condescending, while others find this sort of hypertext explication more effective and a lot more fun than the old yellow-and-black.

Also notable is the disappointment many students expressed when they discovered that Pacino did not actually make a full-length feature film of Richard III, that Looking for Richard is an end in itself, not a documentation of the making of a film. Personally, I am glad Pacino did not make the film we see snippets of in Looking; it would have been, I believe, too monochromatic, too dark, and too long; but the students were excited by the prospect, more kudos for Pacino. On the other hand, I can think of nothing more apropos to his fragmentary filmic method, and certainly nothing more postmodern, than to make a film about making a film that does not exist.

The teacher's guide issued by Youth Media International for Looking for Richard dares to inquire, "What happens when you shout the word 'Shakespeare' in a crowded room?" It is an excellent question. Through this film, Al Pacino intends to change the answer to this question. And he may be succeeding. After all, it is certainly not often that those ubiquitous American film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert give a limited-release, mass-market Shakespearean film "Two-thumbs up! Way up!" Now perhaps you are one of the many critics who hold that Looking for Richard is nothing more than "Shakespearean snack food." But this film was not made for the critics and the scholars. According to my experience and observation, in the classroom Pacino serves his purpose well, which is summed up perfectly in the last sentence he speaks in the film. As he struggles to recall Hamlet's dying words, Pacino humbly declares the overarching universality of Shakespeare: "Whatever I'm saying, I know Shakespeare said it."

December 2001

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