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[whitespace] 'Labour' Pains

A renowned novelist sticks up for love and romance--but isn't so sure about 'Love's Labour's Lost'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

Frank Baxter has been doing his homework. In preparation for a mid-morning screening of Love's Labour's Lost--the much-reviled new film by Kenneth Branagh, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare--Baxter, an author and professor of ;iterature at the University of Michigan, voluntarily set himself the chore of reading the play in the Bard's original text.

Every single word.

On an airplane.

Baxter is currently touring the country to promote his new book The Feast of Love, a delightfully complicated medley of interconnecting love stories that some have compared to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Faced with such large gobs of travel time, Baxter grabbed a late-night in-flight opportunity to read the play.

"It took me about four hours," he says, his eyes glazing over to indicate exactly how long those four hours seemed.

"Love's Labour's Lost," he dramatically intones, "isn't really among Shakespeare's best works. Is it?"

According to armies of scholars, in fact, Love's Labour's Lost is so flighty and inconsequential a play that many insist Shakespeare couldn't possibly be its real author.

The plot, such as it is, deals with the King of Navarre and his three best friends, bachelors all, who make a solemn vow to devote themselves to intellectual study for three whole years, during which they will all abstain from the company of women. Almost immediately, they break that vow when the princess of France, accompanied by her three ladies-in-waiting, comes calling on a diplomatic mission.

Before you can say "Act Two," the bachelors have each become infatuated with a different lady. They skulk about, sighing and moaning. Each begins composing sentimental love poems, professing his undying devotion to the lady of his choice.

For their part, the ladies--after toying like cats with their would-be suitors--ultimately proclaim the love-struck bachelors to be unmarriagable, since the men have demonstrated a certain inability to keep their vows.

In Branagh's film version--set in 1939 and starring Alicia Silverstone (making a bold stab at singing), Adrian Lester, Nathan Lane and Branagh himself--the poems have been dropped entirely, replaced by classic love songs by Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. These are performed in full-scale musical sequences, complete with tap-dancing and the occasional water ballet. While most critics have labeled L3 an affront to Shakespeare, others (mainly those who, like Baxter, have read the play) have instead suggested that Porter and Gershwin are the real victims.

Baxter, however, enjoyed the movie.

To a degree.

"I thought it was close to brilliant, at times," he admits after the show. "It was very clever. My problem with the movie wasn't that Branagh threw a bunch of classic songs into a Shakespeare play. My complaint is the particular songs he used. I think they undermined what Shakespeare was trying to say about love.

"In my reading of the play," he explains, "it's saying that it's okay to be infatuated with love, infatuation's fine--but it's equally important to keep your word. But in Branagh's musical version, the songs he's chosen--Dancing Cheek to Cheek, The Way You Look Tonight, Can't Take That Away From Me--mostly go in the direction of just saying how wonderful it is to be infatuated."

"So," I insert, "you're saying that the immature adolescent sentimentality of the songs runs counter to Shakespeare's suggestion that love be approached with a sense of maturity and responsibility? And of course, popular love songs have always been about the infatuation part of love. They're almost never about responsibilities and commitments."

"Funny you should mention that," Baxter replies. "When the pre-pub copies of this new book began to appear, I did a phone interview with a woman who began by asking, 'You're actually writing about love? Do you really think people talk about love anymore?' This was a woman in her mid-twenties, and it struck me as very interesting.

"So I started to think about what's happening culturally," he continues, "and I thought that maybe, for a generation that is interested in being cool and ironic-- though 'love' may not exactly have become a taboo subject, yet--infatuation is certainly off the table. Infatuation is something young people simply don't want to talk about.

"It was a shock to me."

Baxter is on a roll now.

"I got a review that said my title Feast of Love was a dreadful title," he reveals. "It said that no one, man or woman, would dare carry a book called the Feast of Love onto a subway. And next to the article was another review of a book by a L.A. writer named Rachel Resnick, whose book is called Go West Young Fucked Up Chick. She thought that was a wonderful title."

He laughs again, a gentle rumble tinged with rueful amusement.

"I keep thinking of the way the movie's tone swings back and forth between earnestness and irony, and that the irony is usually often more entertaining that the earnestness," Baxter muses. "It's as if we know how to process the irony, but an earnest view of love is too hard to swallow."

Not as hard to swallow as Alicia Silverstone singing, but I get his point.

"Perhaps," he murmurs, "all this discomfort with love is a reaction to the older generations' fondness for serious love-songs and sentimentality, a swing of the pendulum in a direction away from all that.

"If so, we only have to wait for the next generation, when the pendulum begins to swing back."

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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