Sunday, November 7, 2010

Prospero's Books

If I were to sit down and really think back to the first time I saw an "art film," I believe it was when I was fourteen. I was babysitting for two of my cousins. Even then I suffered from insomnia. I sat awake in my aunt's basement flipping through their cable at 2am. At the time, my family didn't have cable and I was excited to have all these options. Before I knew it, I had come across a film called Prospero's Books. At the time, I didn't know the title. I just sat mesmerized. It was a couple weeks later when I finally found the title.

The film is a visual masterpiece. But, first, I should not refer to this as film. The movie follows very little plot. This is a "re-telling" of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The only spoken voice (mostly) is Prospero's (John Gielgud). Prospero plays not only the plays character, but tends to fill in for the role of Shakespeare. The movie is just as much about the process of creating as it is about the final piece created.

Back to how this isn't quite a film. The plot is barely there. Gielgud the only speaker for the majority of the film. The cast is made up of about 100 people. Most of them fully nude. Adorned in paint or draped cloth. Most of them are for background. They dance about as if in a ballet. At one point, during the wedding scene, the film turns into an opera with three powerful voices. The film is a little over two hours. I wouldn't call this the easiest movie experience. Actually, the hardest. And worth the work required.

Julia Taymor must owe a lot to Greenaway's Prospero's Books. Taymor's film Titus appearing to owe the most to Greenaway. Also, Greenaway may owe a bit to Caligula (the pornographic feature film also starring John Gielgud). Every scene is made up of lavish sets and nudity.

Prospero's Books is clearly Greenaway's dream for a film. I always feel a director follows up their biggest success (in this case The Cook The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) with an even bigger, but less friendly film. Woody Allen did this early on in his career with films like Stardust Memories and Interiors. I have yet to see Greenaway's The Baby of Macon. This is the last of Greenaway's film I have to view. But, I get the sense that Prospero's Books may have been his last great success (as I find The Pillow Book and 8 1/2 Women to only be so so).

It is hard to review Prospero's Books. Hard to judge a film that has lived in my head as memory more than fact for 14 years. To finally see it from start to finish was a lovely moment. If you have the energy, the film is worth hunting down and enjoying.


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