Somehow movies never formed a large portion of my home school experience. I remember watching PBS as a young kid, and I have particularly fond memories of "Theodore Tugboat" and some show featuring lion puppets, and less fond memories of "Teletubbies." But after a certain period (maybe when we no longer had cable), TV-watching was limited to after five o'clock in the evening. It always felt slightly wicked to begin watching something at four-thirty. At any rate, watching movies for a class is a new thing for me; but since the main thrust of the Maymester was not so much the historical facts as it was the media portrayals of events like the defeat of the Armada, films played a key role.
In particular, we watched parts of the two recent movies starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I. They were very inaccurate. They were very over-the-top. They had beautiful cinematography, beautiful lighting.
They made me writhe.
It was not so much what Rachel calls the OSSs (obligatory sex scenes), or even the gross liberties taken with historical events and historical people. It was certainly not the acting, since the films starred actors and actresses like Cate Blanchett ("...you shall have a QUEEN!"), Geoffrey Rush ("It's a pity the law doesn't allow me to be merciful."), and even my favorite Watson. It was the fact that all those OSSs were filmed and liberties taken in order to water down history into a simplistic storyline: a pretty, naive girl is thrust into the role of queen and must overcome her insecurities (and all personal feelings) in order to rule her kingdom.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a simple plot: there are only a few to pick from, after all. What frustrated me was the complete lack of any nuance, any intricacy, any subtlety. All Catholics are traitors. Elizabeth is either completely incompetent or talking back like a skilled politician. Robert Dudley is either Elizabeth's lover or plotting with the Spanish. The story itself rode as much on the music and the relative scale of lighting as it did on the characters and their interrelationships.
Folks. Folks, this is not good storytelling.
People enjoyed the films. Though my classmates and I mocked them, I think in the end everyone but myself was willing to shrug and excuse its faults because it was "entertaining." Entertaining, however, isn't the same as good. It isn't the same as worthwhile. It isn't the same as saying that the director and screenwriter and all the many people involved in the production did their job with skill.
A skilfully-wrought story, whether historical or fantastic or literary or whatever, must have intricacy. If what you see on the surface is all there is to find - if a girl becoming a queen is all there is to it - then the writer has failed. Life is nuanced. Life has grey areas. Art should reflect this subtlety and depth, rather than loudly drawing attention to itself (as films do with exaggerated cinematography, or books do with meaningless but gorgeous prose) and lacking substance in the end.
The leopard in the picture above has very little to do with the substance of my post, but I chose it for a reason. It's a very simple picture: the profile of a big cat against a washed grey backdrop is all you get at first glance. But look closer and you see the fur blurring in the foreground, becoming clearer, more detailed, soft enough to touch along the neck. You notice the tufts from the cat's ears and can count the whiskers. You see the rim of light along the nose and the bristles along the milk mustache, and the contemplative, possibly malevolent look about the eyes. Storytelling should be like this, from the Winnie-the-Poohs to the Bleak Houses of the literary world: making its point (leopard!), but also drawing in the attentive reader to notice the details.