Sometimes it seems that the last person to come up with an original dramatic idea was William Shakespeare - and we all know that he borrowed most of his ideas from other people too. So we should not expect to see much that is new in a story that is a retelling of Shakespeare's "Othello" - which is what Tim Blake Nelson's film "O" is. The film, which is certainly attractive and innovative on a purely formal level, does a generally poor job of convincing us that this is the way in which real teenagers speak. On the other hand, "Finding Forrester" (while it too has its flaws) is a far more intelligent look into what it is like to be a young black man. This paper analyzes the ways in which each of the films depicts certain subcultures of our society and the extent to which the filmmakers try and succeed to present the lives of others fairly and accurately.
O" gives us the story of Shakespeare's "Othello" with the action set on a high school basketball court. Othello has become Odin, Desdemona is his popular and beautiful girlfriend Desi and Hugo is Odin's best friend and the Iago character who convinces Odin that Desi is unfaithful. Despite the radically different setting, the movie actually keeps quite close to the script of "Othello" - and this is in fact its greatest problem, as will be discussed below.
Finding Forrester" is a more-or-less original story (although we have each seen all of these elements before) that also features a young athlete at the center of the story. To play Jamal, a "scholar-athlete" from the South Bronx, Director Gus Van Sant chose a boy with no acting ability, and his sincerity plays well throughout the film. The movie tells the story of Jamal meeting the reclusive and slightly mad writer who has served as his mentor and the ways in which these two writers find authentic ways in which to connect to each other.
In Aleppo Once As noted above, the failure of "O" to make honest or important statements about the lives of contemporary teenagers arises in no small measure from the director's insistence on not playing fast and loose with Shakespeare - something which should generally be praised but in this case was certainly misguided. To understand why this is we must look for a moment at the primary message of "Othello" itself.
Does Shakespeare intend for us to see Othello as a man of honor who, although he brings horror into the world, in the end redeems himself? Perhaps - although the answer to this question is far from unambiguous. Certainly we see Othello as a man who is fundamentally concerned with acting honorably. Certainly we see him as a foil to Iago, a man whose only loyalty is to himself and not to any higher calling. In the end, Othello is redeemed, although not entirely. He shifts from being a hero at the beginning of the play to a villain to, in the end, a tragic hero, a man who has been redeemed but also transformed. Shakespeare reminds us throughout the play that as a black man who enters the white world, the destruction that Othello causes even unintentionally must still be laid at his feet because of his original trespass. Thus while he is in the end restored in part to his original stature, he remains diminished from the man we saw in the first scene.
This fall from a height and its partial restoration is simply not possible in "O": Odin may be a sports star but he is also still a child. The specific nature of the tragedy that overtakes the characters in "Othello" requires that they be adults. In transforming them into teenagers, the director not only diminishes the force of the story but also makes his characters into stereotypes of teenagers.
Moreover, the nature of the story of Othello is one that does not easily translate to the 21st century: Othello's sense of honor is his most defining attribute, and while it may be tempting to see this sense of honor as undermined by the passion he feels for Desdemona (and even more by the passion he feels when he imagines that he has betrayed her) he is more undone by honor than by passion. The echoes of this that we have in "O" seemed both forced in the very different moral context of the pre-modern and post-industrial world. Othello cannot imagine that others will not act honorably since he himself would never do so. He is blind to the possibility of dishonorable action. This failure of imagination of Othello can be contrasted to Iago's own failings, which are quite different. Iago may despise goodness (which is certainly a moral failing) but he recognizes and understands it in others. Othello cannot see evil, which is a terrible sort of weakness indeed.
Othello sees himself as honorable even when he kills the innocent Desdemona:
An honorable murderer, if you will;
For nought I did in hate, but all in honor.
I have done the state some service, and they know it (V, ii, 293).
The director is certainly correct in arguing that jealousy, madness and murder can all be a part of the lives of teenagers today. However, this does not mean that these teenagers understand the world in the same way that Shakespeare's characters do, as the director seems to believe:
Nelson took great care to explain the significance of setting Othello in a modem-day high school by examining the contemporary themes which draw the audience into the story- guns in high school, interracial relationships, teen sex, racism, the parent-child relationship. He felt these themes must be seen exclusively in the context of O's main theme: the relentless efforts of one boy (Hugo) to tear down the life of someone he envies.
The sort of violence and level of passion that the characters in Othello experience leads finally to murder and self-destruction," says Nelson. "But these problems are faced today by teenagers. There are high-school shootings. They don't just happen in urban areas. We wanted to make a film, that's true and coherent with what's going on in our society." (http://www.gal.co.za/writingstudio/page139.html).
To the extent that Shakespeare wished his audience to see that Othello is in the end restored in some measure to his position as a man of honor, he has Othello comes to terms with his actions just a few lines later. After murdering Desdemona, Othello revises this sense of self based on honorableness, understanding at last that actions taken in the name of honor can be just as terrible as those done out of hate or jealousy or even simply evil. This requires a level of maturity that the characters in "O" do not seem to possess and in the analogous scenes the director seems far more condescending than prescient.
In the play, it is never entirely clear if Othello ever realizes the true enormity of this fact. He does describe his life as ending in sin, but it is not clear that he has entirely put aside his notion of himself as an honorable man even as he takes his life with these words:
In Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state, took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus (V, ii, 354).
Othello's life as a soldier has been defined by the action of killing his enemies. When Iago is successful in convincing him that Desdemona is his enemy then he must kill her too to regain the sense of serenity that he has felt on the battlefield, that place where (unlike in the polite society of Venice) he feels entirely at home. There is no good analogue for this kind of knowledge in the play, so while Othello seems a genuinely thoughtful (if flawed and tragic) figure, Odin again seems like an adult's version of a wayward teen.
Much is made throughout the play of the fact that Othello can never fit in to the society of Venice, where he will never be anything but "an old black ram" tupping a white ewe (I, I, 88). This is certainly an essential part of the play: If Othello were not so isolated by his race from others than he would not rely so much on Iago. Othello is cut off from the commonsense advice of friendship (although certainly Cassio might well serve as a friend) and as a result is far more amenable to Iago's evil.
There are attempts in "O" to do this through the use of camera angles that set off characters by their complexion. But we all know - as residents of the same modern world that is inhabited by Odin - that while racism still exists, it is a very different world from that of "Othello." The misery of a black man in a world that will never accept…