Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shakespeare in Doubt (also The Setup & the Payoff)

[One more time, we have two different blog posts inappropriately combined into one.  In the first one we have a discussion of how do we know anything is real, and using the case study of truth and otherwise in "Shakespeare in Love" and the crisis it is has generated.  In the second part, we have a discussion of the comedy writing technique of "setup and payoff" that Shakespeare in Love uses to great effect. Two different posts.  One of these days I have to get my shit together.]

This has been a day from hell for me. I spent several hours trying to write up a post about what was and was not true in Shakespeare in Love (1998) and discovered, through further research, that what I thought I knew here was far more ambiguous or worse. Somehow I had read an article (or more than one) somewhere in some reasonable place and it turns out to be wrong. Of course society is full of such things and belief systems that are incorrect, but it is both annoying and scary to run into one yourself that you were completely unaware of. Of course I can't remember where I read this article or who wrote it. Maybe I just dreamed that I read such an article. Once you start doubting there is no end to the depths that doubt can take you.

To give just one example, I thought I knew very clearly that there was a major scandal involving either the first performance or an early performance of Romeo and Juliet involving a woman playing the role of Juliet because of a last minute disaster involving the boy who had been expected to play the role. It was Elizabethan practice for boys to play the role of women, supposedly this was a way of avoiding licentiousness in the theatre. And since using women on the stage at the time was illegal, the theatre and the play were temporarily shut down. Thus I thought that this incident in the movie was based, loosely, on something that had happened in reality with this play. God only knows what I read or where to think that this was true, but I have known this story wrong as it may be for decades, well before Shakespeare in Love came out but I can find no evidence of any such story on the bold new internet paradigm and if this story had been true or even rumored, it is likely I would find a reference to it without much problem on the internet. But I don't find any such reference. So either I am psychic and somehow channeled from the future this plot point from a movie yet to be made, or I was just wrong.

This is just one example, there are others, and I am now spooked and wish to retreat to safety.

Fortunately, there are a few topics associated with this movie that I can talk about and have some hope that they are true and correct. One of them is how I happened to see this film, the second is to discuss a topic in the writing of comedy which this film demonstrates with great skill referred to as "the setup and the payoff" or words to that effect.

But first, how I happened to see this film.  

Arguably one of the best complements you can give an artist or someone you know is to view their work without realizing who did it. So, for example, say you see the work of a friend without knowing it was your friend, really like the work, and only later discover that your friend did it. Its really nice when that happens, or so I think. Well, Tom Stoppard is not a friend of mine, but obviously I knew of him, but somehow had not realized that he had written (or co-written) Shakespeare in Love.

When Shakespeare in Love came out in 1998, I really did not want to see it. The reasons for this are complicated but it mostly had to do with my contrarian nature responding negatively to the glowing effusions of praise that this film seemed to generate, and because I doubted very much whether someone was going to do an interesting film that I would want to see about Wm. Shakespeare's love life. On top of that, I hated the title. So I planned to miss this one.

But fate had other plans for me and sometime later I was on a plane between NY and LA and this was the movie they were showing. So after the movie started, I broke down and bought a headset and started listening as well as watching. And as I watched I started to wonder who had written this thing. It was being very clever, and I am not used to clever in successful films, I am more likely to think "stupid" than I am to think "clever", generally speaking. But as I watched this movie, I kept thinking: whoever wrote this has done a very good job here, I wonder what happened?

What had happened of course is that I was one of the few people in North America who did not know that this film had been co-written by Tom Stoppard. Oh, I thought, when I found out. That would explain it. Oops.

So now I want to seque to an important non-sequitor, the comedy technique of "setup and payoff." Setup and payoff works like this. You set up in the audience's mind some situation or idea so that they know that something is coming but the main character, generally, does not. Then in the course of time of course something happens that you expected but the characters didn't, and it is often very funny. I realize it does not sound funny at first glance, these things rarely do, but some examples will illustrate this.   First from a different movie that also uses this technique well, and then from Shakespeare in Love.

In the important film, Galaxyquest (1999), we have several completely excellent examples of this technique. The one that jumps right out at you of course is at the basic premise of the movie. A group of former TV actors who had experienced fame once by being on a TV series about a starship going around visiting various alien planets (e.g. Star Trek) get involved with a real group of aliens, the Thermians, who have also seen the show but believe it is real, and try to get our protagonists to save them from a real alien menace. So we know that these are real aliens and real spaceships, but our heroes don't but at various times discover the truth. And the inverse is true, the "good aliens", the Thermians, have to discover that the people they think are space heroes are really television actors who have seen better days. So we have the setup, and then we have a series of payoffs.

I have put on youtube an example payoff from the film.  In this sequence the crew of the TV series think they are trying to join their colleague for some sort of paid fan experience, or job.  They think these geeky looking "Thermians" are just badly adjusted fans of the TV series.

While we are on the subject of Galaxyquest, here is a link to a post by Ken Perlin in which he discusses a way to quantitatively rate a movie which is based on his experience of first seeing Galaxyquest.  His post is not about setup and payoff per se, its about the bigger questions that this movie raises.

The supporting actors learn the truth about the Thermians

Getting back to Shakespeare in Love, pretty much anyone who sees a film with a title like that, will know that Wm. Shakespeare did not, in fact, write a comedy with the title "Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate's Daughter". But everyone does know that Shakespeare wrote a tragedy called "Romeo and Juliet". If they know nothing else about Shakespeare and his plays, they know that much at least. And so we have a perfect setup for a series of gags where Shakespeare is struggling with both the story and the title as it evolves into a tragedy called "Romeo and Juliet". The way Stoppard drags this out is spectacular, and also has elements of the running gag to it. I do not have a copy of the movie here so I can not count how many intermediate forms we have to go through on our way to the final, but its a lot, and every one is a payoff. And of course the audience knows where this is going and feels a sense of relief, or at least I did, when we finally get there. Although a "running gag" is a different technique of writing comedy, this particular example also has a sense of that going on as well. Its essentially setup and payoff combined with a running gag (or so I think).

In a future post I hope to get to the bottom of the real topic of this post, which is why I believed what I did, but I can not write that today, because I do not know the answer.


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