There are a few things that I love about this film.
It is not just funny, but playful, meaning that it’s a little more interactive and self-directed. The humor doesn’t arise so much from intrinsically funny events, so much as it arises from the particular ways in which a viewer chooses to entertain a scene or piece of dialog. This is especially noticeable when reading the play, where I’d often find myself laughing at the same line for two or three unrelated reasons.
And I love the premise – it’s absurd and hilarious without being easy and gimmicky. What if minor fictional characters had sentience during the time between their inscribed roles? What’s more, what if in their spare time, they clumsily wrestle with the peculiarities of their existential circumstance? What do they make of their reality, or of their brief interstices in the enveloping dramatic narrative?
The audience draws mirth from the situation because we know what’s going on. We recognize the inscrutability of the world from their perspective, but we have the totally un-guessable, totally preposterous mental model of the situation that makes everything make sense. Part of the humor and of the charm that we get out of this story is dependent on our relatively god-like or divine knowledge with respect to the world that they inhabit. It feels to be an emotion reminiscent of the maniacal laugh which seizes the super-villain when he watches as the public unwittingly falls victim to his master plan. At the same time, our response can’t help but be heavily empathetic. Despite the outlandishness of the premise, the narrative doesn’t break down because we can imagine ourselves behaving as they do, were we in their situation without our privileged knowledge. Much of the drama of the story mirrors tender aspects of our own insecurities – Why is my circumstance always absurd on close inspection? Which, if any, of my actions have a substantial effect on my fate or on the fates of those around me? What do I do with the suspicion that many important aspects of my experience is the direct effect of massive conspiring forces which are driven by motives beyond my ability to uncover? Is there a simple solution which would make things make sense? If there were, what are the odds that we could discover it? If we found it, would it make a difference? Where are the gaping holes in my deductions? What do I do with the fact that none of these questions will be suitably answered before I die?
Because this is an adaptation from a play, and not only that – a play known for it’s dense dialog – all of this comes at you at a pace that doesn’t really exist in film. I can imagine it being overwhelming if you’re going in to this having never seen or read the play. I watched this after having read the play, and still constantly found myself lagging behind, thinking through multiple parses of different bits of dialog. I enjoyed some bits more on page because I had more time to dwell, and some parts in particular are just better suited for text, like the scenes where they ruminate on the unreasonable power and deficiencies of language. On the other hand, I’ve never seen this on stage, but having this played out by professional actors under professional direction made it come through more expressively for me, and in some ways Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were funnier than I’d imagined them to be.
I’d read Borges’ excellent collection Dream Tigers last week, and couldn’t help but suspect that Stoppard read it too before writing R&G are dead. Some excerpts.
Dialogue on a Dialogue
A: “Absorbed in rationalizing about immortality, we had let dusk come without lighting the lamp. We could not see each other’s faces. He kept repeating that the soul is immortal, and the indifference and sweetness of Macedonio Fernandez’s voice were more convincing than fervor ever could have been. He was assurinig me that the death of the body is entirely insignificant and that dying must perforce be the fact most null and void that can happen to a man. I sat playing with Macedonio’s clasp knife, opening and closing it. A nearby accordion kept infinitely grinding out La Cumparista, that worn-out trifle loved by so many because they think it’s old–I proposed that Macedonio and I commit suicide so we could go on discussing without being bothered.” Z: (joking): “But I suspect that in the end you decided not to do it.” A: (now fully mystical): “I don’t really recall whether we commiteted suicide that night.”
Soft stockings coddle them by day and nail-bossed leather shoes buttress them, but my toes refuse to pay attention. Nothing interests them but emitting toenails, horny plates, semi-transparent and elastic, to defend themselves–from whom? Stupid and mistrustful as they alone can be, they never for a moment stop readying that tenuous armament. They reject the universe and its ecstasy to keep forever elaborating sharp ends, which rude Solingen scissors snip over and over again. Ninety days along in the dawn of prenatal confinement, they establish that singular industry. When I am laid away, in an ash-colored house provided with dead flowers and amulets, they will still go on with their stubborn task, until they are moderated by decay. They–and the beard on my face.
To make his horror complete, Caesar, pressed to the foot of a statue by the impatient daggers of his friends, discovers among the blades and faces the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his protege, perhaps his son, and ceasing to defend himself he exclaims: “You too, my son!” Shakespeare and Quevedo revive the pathetic cry.
Destiny takes pleasure in repetition, variants, symmetries: nineteen centuries later, in the south of the Province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is attacked by other gauchos. As he falls he recognizes an adopted son of his and says to him with gentle reproof and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read), “Pero che!” He is being killed, and he does not know he is dying so that a scene may be repeated.
Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote
Weary of his land of Spain, an old soldier of the king sought solace in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in that valley of the moon where misspent dream-time goes, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.
In gentle mockery of himself he conceived a credulous man who, unsettled by the marvels he read about, hit upon the idea of seeking noble deeds and enchantments in prosaic places called El Toboso or Montiel.
Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. He was survived only briefly by Miguel de Cervantes.
For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed, the tissue of that whole plot consisted in the contraposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.
Little did they suspect that the years would end by wearing away the disharmony. Little did they suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s frail figure would be, for the future, no less poetic than Sinbad’s haunts or Ariosto’s vast geographies.
For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.
Borges and I
…see post on Perfect Blue