Sunday, July 15, 2012

Turn a Blind Eye: An Analysis of the Detrimental Effects of Irresponsible Friendships in a Modern Film Adaptation of Othello

How many of you have actually watched "O", that film made back in the 90s which a lot of people made note of if only to comment that Julia Stiles was acting in yet another Shakespeare adaptation?  I'm thinking not many have watched this film.  Before taking a class on Shakespeare and Film this last spring I'd been quite content to avoid this film.  It never caught my attention and I just didn't feel the need to watch a movie about a guy who goes crazy with jealousy and then violence ensues until the end of the film where there was one last man standing.  Just not my cup of tea.  I'd never read the play before either and that's sad, considering how much a fan I am of Shakespeare's tragedies (but I confess, I rather loathe the history plays.)  I was assigned this play and I thought well, I had to read at some point, right?  So I finish reading this play and this is what I get out of it.  I call this "Othello in a nutshell."
Villain: "Hey. You're wife is cheating on you."
Othello: "That bitch! I'll kill her!"
No wonder I was never assigned this play in high school.  It's all about the ways in which humans, through their own prejudices and jealousies, manage to destroy each other and themselves.  At least the bloody Macbeth, he that murdered sleep and shall sleep no more, had the witches giving him stupid prophecies to influence his plans to murder, well, quite the number of people if you want to list them all.  Macbeth was stupid to trust the witches and he had a vindictive wife and in the end he'd gone crazy.  How does it go, not guilty by reason of mental illness?  Even Hamlet could have gone with that defense.  The guy thought he was seeing the ghost of his dead father everywhere and acted on his suspicions that his father was murdered.  As Polonius said, "Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, What is't but to be nothing else but mad?"  In the end, you can only pretend to be crazy for so long before it ends up becoming the truth.  Othello on the other hand just had no faith in his new wife.  He doubted her love and devotion to him and his enemies saw that.  The preyed on his weaknesses and he fell right into their trap.  In the end Othello had no one to blame but himself and by that point a LOT of people were dead.  He killed his wife because some other man, a man he supposedly trusted, told him she was cheating on him.  I just have to ask, what makes that guy more trustworthy than your own wife, you idiot?
Proceed with the rest of this analysis with caution as I do discuss important film plot points as the analysis hits its stride.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
So then I finally watched the modern film adaptation of the play, Tim Blake Nelson’s Othello adaptation, entitled “O”, which provides new developments and insights into the play’s themes.  The script by Brad Kaaya explores modernized backgrounds for its leading characters, Odin James and Hugo Goulding as Othello and the villainous Iago, adding the influences of drugs and a set of clear motives to explain the violence that ends the film.  The fact that these are teenagers makes no difference as the truth of the matter is that even teens today have the potential to act in a terrifying violent manner.  These changes to the characters in teenaged form make for interesting additions in the argument of what constitutes teen violence, demonstrating the idea that it takes multiple factors to end up with the events that close this film.  However, there are additions to this film which explore the average high school student’s mentality and the responsibilities of friendships.  In high school, friends are an important connection and in Nelson’s “O”, the film provides insight into the limitations of friendship, displaying the classic tendency to turn one’s eye away from something uncomfortable and the belief that the next person that comes around will take the responsibility to make a serious change, all factors that help to precipitate the escalation of violence in schools where it could otherwise be preventable.  A counter-argument has been presented to me on this issue of discussion already.  I was asked, “Should teens have to shoulder the burden of responsibility when it comes to policing school violence?”  Of course not, but one can’t deny the possibility that there could be less violence in schools if teens were willing to speak out against bullying.  Teens shouldn’t have to shoulder the responsibility but if only a handful tried to put an end to the things that they encounter in their school environment it could make all the difference in one person’s world.  In the end, I can’t help but feel that it would be better to speak up at that point in time as opposed to spending the rest of one’s life questioning whether things could have gone differently had the necessary people spoken up when they had the chance.
The first instance of irresponsible friendships in this film occurs just after Odin James has been called into Dean Brable’s office.  After being questioned as to the nature of his relationship with the Dean’s daughter, Desi, the film cuts to a scene where Odin and his best friend Michael are beating up Roger, presumably because the truth was revealed that Roger was responsible for the call that led to Odin and Desi being questioned and their relationship being discovered by Desi’s father.  This is an average example of the expectations involved in some high school friendships.  A teenager believes that their best friend will support them in all of their actions.  When it comes down to a fight, your best friend is supposed to have your back.  Most teens operate under this set of beliefs.  Admit it people; nearly everyone has expected to have their friends support whether it came to asking someone out to the first time, defying your parents about the right to stay out all night or in a faceoff against some group of stupid kids you just can’t agree with in class.  But that’s where it should end.  Teens banding together in acts of violence is just wrong on so many levels.  It seems typical of teenage behavior to stand by your friends and yet it is disappointing because of the violence that Odin and Michael felt was necessary to deal with the problem.  There is also the question of the example that Odin is setting as a respected athlete and student at their school.  Odin is a senior, Michael is a sophomore, and the example that Odin is setting is that any problem that Michael will face in the future can be dealt with by a beating.  It is irresponsible of Odin to use his friendship for the purpose of beating up another student because of the humiliation he felt at being called into the Dean’s office and the accusations made against him.  Even if the accusations are false, a person does not have the right to just attack their accuser.  Logically one has to think, what the hell happened that your adversary has done this?  Going out and beating them up with the help of your cronies does not make you look better to anyone or remedy the situation.  You only reinforce the idea in their mind that they need to belittle or destroy you in some way.  You do not correct one violent wrong with another violent wrong.  While some could hope that Michael would have chosen to convince his friend of finding another method of handling the problem, the truth of the matter is that these friendships precipitate more problems than they actually manage to solve as this film continuously demonstrates.
This bad example leads to another example of the limitations of friendships and the irresponsibility prevalent in these relationships.  When Odin comes in to Desi and Emily’s room with the intent of getting Desi to admit that she gave his scarf away which would prove that Desi was cheating on Odin, Emily is present in the room during the whole exchange.  Nelson focuses the camera on her as she listens to Odin accusing Desi of being with other guys besides him and the look on her face as she stays mute.  When the animosity from Odin gets to be too much, Emily says she shouldn’t be in the room to listen to his accusations against Desi and suggests that Odin should not be in the room at that moment either.  As Desi’s best friend, and now an unwitting accomplice in Hugo’s plan, Emily had the power here to make the plot stop in its tracks.  In an ideal world, she could have admitted that Hugo asked her to get the scarf and that is why Desi does not have it.  Instead of doing the right thing though, she sits mutely by, watching Desi’s face for its reactions to Odin’s words and watching Odin pace around their room.  The look on Emily's face says it all; she KNOWS that something is terribly wrong and she does nothing to stop it.  Yeah, I know, she can't do anything because the play says so but really my fellow viewers, how many of you were still just plain disgusted with that girl's actions when you watched the film?  It was irresponsible of Emily to leave this matter unresolved when she had the information to fix the problem.  It also displays the limitations of friendship because the fact is that Emily is acting in her own self-interests by not admitting the truth.  She is finally getting the attention she wants from Hugo so Emily mistakenly believes that to foil his plan will leave her with the nothing she had before.  Perhaps admitting the truth would have been too much for Emily to do but her inability to come to her best friend’s defense when Desi is accused of cheating also shows the limitations of their friendship.  It is easy to act righteous behind closed doors, thinking she has the best of intentions for her friend, but Emily did not stand up for Desi when it counted.  By turning away, Emily does damage to both Desi’s relationship with Odin and to her friendship with Desi.  Emily does not understand the whole extent of what will come but her choice to work only for herself helps to escalate the emotions that lead to the violent ends for most of their main circle of friends.
Another significant example of irresponsible friendships comes about at the Slam Dunk Contest, a scene in the film that really has not counterpart in Shakespeare's play.  At one before this scene occurs, Desi Brable declares to Odin that Michael Cassio is one of her best friends besides Emily, her roommate.  At the contest Desi is seated between Emily and Michael, common enough if what she claims about her friends is true as she would choose to sit between her two trusted companions.  When Roger takes the seat in front of Michael and his friend Jason, the pair takes it upon themselves to put Roger in his place beginning with insulting Roger to force him to move.  Desi first tells Jason to leave Roger alone, then Michael, before assuring Roger that he can continue to sit in his seat.  That’s where her good intentions end though.  As the insults begin to grow worse in nature, Michael and Jason each begin to flick Roger’s ears painfully a multiple of times.  Other than a few sounds of dismay from Emily and Desi, the torture is allowed to continue until Roger leaves his seat, looking like he’s on the verge of tears.  Desi acted irresponsibly in the face of violence.  As the teasing grew worse in nature, she sat by and let it happen rather than risk their attention being turned on her.  In some way, Desi understood the limitations of her friendship with Michael at that moment.  If Desi had come more vehemently to Roger’s defense, the focus would have been on her to explain her actions.  Her choice to sit by reflects the fact that in the face of violence most teenagers will wait out their friend’s actions so that they may not end up a victim themselves and so that their supposed friendships will remain intact.  Had Desi acted more honorably, Roger may not have been so malleable to Hugo’s influence and Roger would not have done so much to take down Odin and Michael for the wrongs done to him in school.  Also, Michael would have had to contend with the fact that his bullying ways were not going to gain him favor in the school.
The students' behavior in this film is typical of most high school students, but what most students need to realize is that every little thing counts.  Every little case of teasing can build up in magnitude and lead to horrible consequences.  The truth is that every teenager will always think only of their own self until thinking about the pain of others is too massive to ignore.  Students should understand that truth and honesty are better choices in the long run to help get them out of high school with as less pain as possible.  By understanding the limitations seen in the students of this film, modern day teens can hopefully take it upon themselves to make the right choices and stop violence before it has the chance to end in tragedy.

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