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Prospero's Books
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53 out of 67 people found the following review useful:

Amazing Scholarship

Author: tedg (tedg@filmsfolded.com) from Virginia Beach
9 July 2000

Shakespeare is without peer, the man of whom Harold Bloom said he invented humanity. `The Tempest' is his richest and essentially his last play, clearly about himself and his career. John Gielgud is the finest Shakespearean actor of our age. Greenaway is the most creative, lush and introspective filmmaker working.

This film is important.

I've already had one comment some time back. But on reviewing, there are two things I'd like to point you to when you see it.

Prospero is based on Shakespeare himself of course, but also on Thomas Harriot, who was a Kabbalist. Harriot had led a mission to the new world in 1585, where he wintered over with Algonquian priests. He came back convinced of having discovered a new cosmology which he never published (because of continuing trials for heresy). But he did share with Galileo, Kepler and Descartes.

Shakespeare satirized Harriot in `Love's Labors Lost' as Holofernes, because Harriot was then allied with an opposing clique (including rival poet Marlowe). But they became close as events unfolded.

The first point is to look for Thomas Harriot's only published work, about his trip to Virginia. It is the Book of Utopias, with the paintings by artist John White. Just after that the sprites act out the Indian magical circle described by Harriot.

Second: Harriot's Kabbalah is based on 21 paths that the magician can open, and one that opens automatically as part of the game of life. Here, Greenaway has Prospero open the 21 books in weaving his magic. When he closes them, the spell recedes. The 22nd is the Book of Games, which the lovers open and close. Kabbalah provides for two `invisible' paths for creating magical artifacts. This we have in the Folio and The Tempest, numbers 23 and 24.

Gielgud suggested the collaboration, and we suppose the scholarship was a joint project. But this is deep work indeed, the only production I know that understood what the play is all about.

Greenaway says: "Theres a project, I'd like very much to do, called Prospero's Creatures' about what happened before the beginning. Sort of a prelude to The Tempest. And I've also written a play called Miranda, about what happens afterwards on the ship on the way home. It's about what happens to innocence and how it has to be destroyed."

We can only hope.

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43 out of 61 people found the following review useful:

A Masterful Film about the Limits of Film

Author: tedg (tedg@filmsfolded.com) from Virginia Beach
30 April 2000

I'm attracted to competence, and especially when the vision is unusual and moving. But I love self-referential art, in this case a movie that includes as part (in fact the center) of its message some perspective on what the movie is all about.

This film is one of my most valued experiences, and here, I'll just write about the self-reference. For this, you have to know the context of the play itself. `The Tempest' was written at the end of Shakespeare's career. Earlier, he had composed some of the richest drama that may ever be created. In so doing, the technique -- at least in the great plays -- was to grapple with great forces and ideas and project then into stories. The theatric convention of the days was one of sparse presentation: few props, sets, costumes.

But towards the end of Shakespeare's life, the conventions changed. Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones had introduced the notion of lush, magical special effects, and even popularized productions that consisted of nothing at all but the effects themselves. Shakespeare's prior efforts were deep structures which use the sparse conventions of the theater, without undue obfuscation from those. But here he was asked to produce, even compete, using techniques whose very nature is to distract. So he wrote a play ABOUT visual effects that obfuscate and manipulate, while USING visual effects to the same end.

But there's a deeper irony. Some think Prospero was modeled after John Dee, but this is likely not so, Instead the model was Magus Thomas Harriot who actually did visit the New World and report strange happenings. (In the winter of 1585, he wintered with Algonquian priests probably on, certainly near the land I'm writing from.) Harriot was the age's greatest scientist, but we hardly know him because he never wrote any books as he was under constant examination for heresy. There's lots to his story, all which Shakespeare would have known and partly lived, and the notion of Prospero's Books would have been especially rich at the time of writing.

Cinema is a medium which is all effects, nothing but illusion, and thus is nearly impossible to use as a lens for true visions of the world. So here we have Greenaway's film in which illusion is the point of the immensely clever theatric notion of Prospero's Books. The books are both the illusions and the distorted lens, and turned here into a means to make a film purely about what it means to be a film, and to do so with specific reference to Shakespeare's structure about the similar problem in the effect-laden theater. Moreover, Shakespeare's reference is to Harriot's earlier, similar conundrum between the motions of the great world and the imperfect lens of logic that is required to capture some image of those laws in books.

It's all so well conceived. I'll let others comment on the execution, which seems masterful to me. This film will live very long, and you will be less impoverished by seeing/experiencing it.

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34 out of 46 people found the following review useful:

Brilliant, but not an easy watch

Author: Scoopy from Budapest
8 November 1998

Peter Greenaway is one of the great filmmakers, with an original and personal vision. This movie is a marvelous mixture of Shakespeare, visual poetry, music, art ... a feast for the imagination.

Having said that, I must add that I watched it with my wife whose succinct comment was "pretentious". Well, yes, it is a little pretentious, and there are spots that move along too slowly, so you can't just "let it happen" as you do with most movies. This one requires you to pay attention.

It includes what must be the longest single pan to the side ever filmed. I'm not sure how long it was, but it went on forever. I guess it must have gone more than 360 degrees, circled back to the original spot, where new sets had replaced the old. I'm not sure. But it is dazzling. Actually, you can take virtually any frame from this movie and make it into a poster.

Films have been around for about a century, and there isn't much around that doesn't recycle old material. Peter Greenaway is an exception. Like him or not, he's a dyed-in-the-wool original.

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28 out of 37 people found the following review useful:

A tempting view of The Tempest

10/10
Author: J. Canker Huxley from USA
6 December 1998

Imagine if William Shakespeare, Leonardi DaVinci, Sigmond Freud, and Jean Luc Goddard all met in a dark alley, got drunk together, and made a film. If you could image the result, you would then get an idea of what this movie is about.

Told with the help multiple on-screen images and the strength of Sir John Guilgud narration and acting skills, Greenaway brings a new face to Shakespeare's "The Tempest." This film is innovative, sensual, and challenging as Shakespeare intended.

I would warn that this film sparks a cast of about 100+ naked people. Although it is nudity used in the best taste possible, this is not a film to be showing to the High School English class.

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20 out of 25 people found the following review useful:

It's a ballet

Author: Scott Nickell from Dayton, OH
6 June 2004

I found Prospero's Books fascinating, on many levels, but it wasn't until my second or third time watching it that I realized the "key" to unlocking this film: It's a ballet.

This film is essentially images and motion choreographed to music (this realization struck me during the opening credit sequence in one viewing). Now, it's an unusual ballet: The "music" includes the mellifluous recitation of "The Tempest" by Gielgud, and the choreography includes things like digital manipulation of images, and the images are heavily influenced by renaissance paintings, but I maintain that the film is, fundamentally, a ballet.

That means that you shouldn't really expect a clear expression of the story, any more than you would from any other ballet. What you should expect is a series of interesting images choreographed to music inspired by "The Tempest". As with any ballet, you can follow it if you're already familiar with the story, but otherwise, you should read the play in advance.

And, just a couple of things about some of the most common criticisms: The naked people? Think of them as invisible - they are visual symbolic representations of the "airy spirits" Prospero commands, his magic. The infamous pissing? Ariel p***ing on a model ship is just an obvious visual metaphor for Ariel creating a storm over the real ship.

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19 out of 24 people found the following review useful:

A visually astonishing celebration of Shakespeare

Author: (chris@cfowler.demon.co.uk) from London, England
30 May 2003

This is Peter Greenaway's most humane and enthralling feature, a visual tour-de-force which re-interprets Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' through the books of magic with which Prospero creates his realm. Sir John Gielgud gives a moving, heartfelt farewell performance in the title role, Michael Clarke is a sinuous, demonic Caliban, and Michael Nyman's score is fittingly triumphant. One sequence - the Masque - even turns the film into an opera.

Although the visuals are overloaded to a level of decadence rarely seen on film, it is always with a purpose. One quibble; Prospero's overlaying of his own voice on the characters makes some of the dialogue difficult to follow, especially if you are unfamiliar with the source material. The film demands to be seen on a wide screen.

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20 out of 26 people found the following review useful:

Cinematic Magic - the Bard is the touchstone for today's technology

10/10
Author: monabe from Tuross, Australia
5 February 2000

Peter Greenaway has given us a visual cinematic treat. This dazzling blend of technology, allegory and imagination is a multi-layered treat for those who seek the art that video and the digital world promise. Watch this movie on video to properly savour the intelligence and artistic genius that guides this visual delight.

Do not expect rationality or straight-line logic. Rather, enjoy this as a unique and idiosyncratic artistic cinematic vision. Pure cinema. All you need to know is the basic story of "The Tempest". Shakespeare. I am sure, would have understood what Peter Greenaway was about in providing such entertainment for a 20th century audience.

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15 out of 19 people found the following review useful:

Entertained by beauty

Author: Renee750il from East Tennessee
20 January 2004

I love Shakespeare, to read and to see it performed. I also loved Prospero's Books. Granted, I've only watched it twice as yet, and will undoubtedly indulge in a course of dyed-in-the-wool over-intellectualization and cerebral gymnastics during some future viewing, but these first two viewings (with a lovely bottle of Beringer Brothers White Zinfandel) were utterly given over to happily losing all perspective and immersing myself into the fantastical visual orgy spread before me. But then, I also like Heironymus Bosch and Salvador Dali.

Films are to entertain. Film makers cannot be required to entertain each and every member of the viewing public with each film. That said, there is no rule specifying just how a film must entertain us, nor is there a rule limiting any of us to being entertained in a specific form. We can be entertained by purest brain candy, the most convoluted mystery, brilliant wit, even by being frightened witless or moved to tears. In this case, I took my entertainment from the unadulterated, hedonistic beauty - both of sight and sound - offered up in a blaze of brave disregard for bourgeois ideals, and I'm not the least apologetic.

Yes, it did enrich my life, just by the sheer beauty and excess of it.

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13 out of 16 people found the following review useful:

A notable work, but come prepared

8/10
Author: asu from somewhere else
12 February 2001

I was absolutely in awe the first time I saw this film, but haven't really been able to sit through it again (its mainly the shoddy VHS I own), but I plan to give it the time it deserves. First off, I love Shakespeare, and I knew the Tempest fairly well before seeing this. I can imagine enjoying it fresh, but honestly, its main pts are for those familiar with the play. That said, Greenway has created a grand piece of artwork with this film. I love plot, I miss it often (and its often missing these days), but I equally enjoy works that don't use it or go beyond it. The visuals are lush, and Michael Nyman's score is fantastic...Prospero's Books is more experience than story, like a painting or a song.

Understandbly, Greenway is one of those filmmakers whose audience should be prepared for something different than the regular fare. I have a feeling my own attachment to the source material may be casting the film more glowingly than it deserves. The play has its flaws too, but for someone who takes the time it certainly rewards you well.

I'll comment on the nudity, very briefly. Sex, sensuality, and natural forms are three things that can be very differently perceived, and Prospero's Books deals with it in an adult (as in mature) manner, come that way and you'll be fine.

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12 out of 15 people found the following review useful:

Visually & artistically stunning

10/10
Author: Afracious from England
30 May 2000

The film opens with a cornucopia of fascinating images, including many naked bodies. The are a lot of nude bodies on show in this film. Some swimming underwater, some prancing around liberally. Sir John Gielgud is the prominent figure and voice of the film. He tells us all about the books, and his daughter on an island where they both are located. The story isn't going to entrap many viewers, but the look of it all really needs to be watched. Greenaway opens image after image in the centre of each frame, and large books are opened. The front of a woman's body is removed to reveal all her internal organs. It really deserves to be seen just to look at it all. This film is very appealing to the eye.

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