In May of 1998, a pale, depressed 15-year-old named Kip Kinkel walked into his high school in suburban Oregon with an arsenal of small arms and began firing, killing two students and wounding 26 others. Even by the standard of school shootings, Kinkel's was an extraordinarily incomprehensible crime; he came from an average background, and, aside from an obsession with guns and a general tendency toward melancholy, he seemed an average American boy. Picking through the aftermath, investigators discovered in Kinkel's house--along with the bodies of his parents, shot at point-blank range--the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann's MTV-inflected William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet playing on repeat. The conclusion, reinforced in a recent PBS documentary on the killings, was that Kinkel had constructed an elaborate fantasy life around the film, casting himself as one of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers. The nation's professional handwringers were vindicated: Here was evidence that a steady diet of glorified violence could turn Joe America into a mass murderer.
Kinkel's crime--along with the subsequent rash of school violence--is also the backstory of O, actor-director Tim Blake Nelson's sporadically bloody retelling of Othello in a modern high school setting. According to the trade press, squeamish executives at Miramax, whose "genre division" Dimension Films held distribution rights to the film, kept O on the shelf for more than two years. Their reticence was calculated: During that time, Miramax's chief, Harvey Weinstein, was carrying water for Al Gore, who was busy decrying Hollywood's noxious influence on youth (though the candidate's righteous indignation apparently didn't inspire him to remove his hand from Weinstein's pocket). Meanwhile, Weinstein advanced the cultural standard by releasing Scream 3, about attractive young people carving each other up; Shakespeare, it seems, didn't square with Miramax's role as guardian of moral rectitude. Finally, after the film's producers sued Miramax for breach of contract, the studio pawned O off on the smaller Canadian distributor Lions Gate. Given that Lions Gate, relative to Miramax, lacks the PR resources and the clout with exhibitor chains to keep a smaller movie onscreen against the likes of Summer Catch, this effectively exiled O to limited engagements in commercial theaters, where it runs little risk of influencing teenagers negatively or otherwise.
Miramax's cravenness would be a lot more risible if O were a good film--but it's not. And unlike Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, to which it pretty clearly aspires, O isn't even bad in interesting ways. Nelson and his screenwriter, Brad Kaaya, make a fundamental blunder by staging Othello as a somber, topical tragedy, replete with swells of opera music and the requisite white doves flapping around in the background. Like Nelson's first feature, the Flannery O'Connor-esque Eye of God, O is set in the "New South"--that is, the Old South, with better dental care--at an elite boarding school. Given that milieu, it makes sense that the play's racial dynamic would be emphasized: Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is a basketball hotshot and the only black student at the lily-white school. (The character's initials, certainly not incidental, suggest another star athlete.) His Nicole Brown...er, sorry, Desdemona, is played by Julia Stiles, who, with Hamlet and 10 Things I Hate About You, is now a veteran of three Shakespeare updates. (While plenty nice to look at, Stiles still can't cut the figure; she's more Noxema Girl than tragic heroine.) The film's Iago, finally, is played by Josh Hartnett, the handsome young actor who spent the summer dodging special effects in Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor.
Hartnett certainly looks like a movie star--you could slice cheese on those cheekbones. But he's all wrong for the part; he doesn't have the mileage to suggest Iago's snake-oil-salesman's charisma. Instead of diabolic bravura, Hartnett wears a wounded mask, as though Shakespeare's most self-aware villain ("I am not what I am" remains one of literature's great expressions of nihilism) were nothing but a brooding, depressed kid. Hartnett is probably destined to be a big star: He's already credibly mimicking James Dean and Brad Pitt, though without any of the former's raw emotion or the latter's smirky charm. But between this film and Pearl Harbor, Hartnett runs the risk of being typecast as a good-looking piece of set decoration. It might do his career some good to play in a comedy; he needs to loosen up.
And so, for that matter, does O. In the early scenes, Nelson and cinematographer Russell Lee Fine (who also shot Cindy Sherman's camp classic Office Killer) work up some visual interest by sending their camera gliding through and swooping over Odin and company on the basketball court. (Alas, Nelson spoils the moment by adding that hoariest of sports-film clichés: the overdubbed play-by-play announcer who tells us what's going on.) As the mechanics of the tragedy actually kick in, though, O quickly loses its momentum. The filmmakers adhere closely to the play's Machiavellian plotting--including Iago's famous mischief with the handkerchief. But they also replace Shakespeare's poetry with mall-rat patois. "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them," for instance, becomes, "I'll fuck your punk ass up, motherfucker"--a questionable improvement.
There's precedent for this style of adaptation: 10 Things made sweet, loopy sense of The Taming of the Shrew without the benefit of Shakespeare's words. But, divorced from its poetry, Othello strains credibility: As a story, it's soap-opera melodrama. (The play's grandeur lies in its language.) Michael Almereyda's recent, underrated Hamlet, and even Luhrmann's loud, trashy film, demonstrated that Shakespeare can accommodate a modern context. But O's creators don't trust their audience--teenagers (judging from the Teen People who's-who cast)--to comprehend poetry any more than Miramax executives trust them not to run out and start killing each other after seeing the film. In a telling scene, a teacher asks one of the film's youngsters to name a Shakespearean sonnet. "I thought he wrote movies," the kid deadpans. It's not an unfunny line. But it also strikes a note of condescension, a this-is-our-youth moralizing that doesn't square with the film's teensploitation impulses.
In the end, O's failure is not one of composition or execution, but of conception. After all, Othello is, at its heart, about Iago's frustrated love for Othello (it's maybe worth noting that Iago was the model for Milton's Satan), and Iago's destruction of Othello is also an act of self-negation, comprehensible only because we recognize Iago in the darkest corners of ourselves. By imputing base motives to the villain (turns out he just wanted to be the star basketball player himself), O makes the whole exercise ridiculous. It renders this most intimate tragedy senseless--another sad example of our capacity for monstrousness. Which, come to think of it, might lead us back to Kip Kinkel.
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