Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Frankenstonian Dictatorship

Late January 2014 I was on holiday in Egypt. Jet lagged and unable to sleep, I got hooked on BBC's Sherlock, watching all three seasons consecutively. I was already aware of Benedict Cumberbatch, for he was all over the place in 2013, yet I wasn't intrigued enough to learn his name. I regrettably referred to him as the English Cucumber. Sherlock was my tipping point. I have been on a Cumberbinge since.

It is such a shame that in the larger moviesphere, Mr. Cumberbatch might be known for Star Trek into the Darkness and The Fifth Estate. Not to fault his performance in either film, God knows I do not want to anger his Cumberbitches, but the man has such an artistic range with twists and turns that Khan or Assange do not do him justice, despite his tribute to both characters. A quick YouTube search returns remnants of amazing performances by Cumberbatch as he engages his entire faculties to convey sentiment. He breaks your heart with a single tear drop cascading down his long face. He imparts consonance with a constrained um and menace with a smirk. Those of you who know Benedict Cumberbatch only as Sherlock have simply tapped the tip of the iceberg.

While cyberstalking researching Mr. Cumberbatch, I came across Danny Boyle's Frankenstein. In 2011 Danny Boyle adapted the play for the Royal National Theater in London. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller portrayed Frankenstein and his creature simultaneously, iterating the roles each day. Available on YouTube are various clips on the making of the play and snippets of the performance. Reviews bestow special praise for Cumberbatch's creature as he was recognized with an Olivier Award for his performance. Upon watching the small clips, I was enraged, angered for not being blessed with the opportunity to experience Frankenstein live. The production was broadcasted in certain cinemas in limited release. I scoured the internet in search of future showings. My efforts were in vain. My heart sunk further, for it was set on seeing the full performance. Then I had an epiphany. If the play was shown in cinemas, thus it lives on film. Somewhere there was a digital copy of Danny Boyle's Frankenstein.

Try as I may, I couldn't find that lone digital survivor. Surely I could stream it! No, I could not. Surely I can get it on DVD! What ever the price, where ever the location, I did not mind. I would have paid hundreds of dollars and waited months just to see Cumberbatch's Creature, and possibly own it for life. But no DVD existed. I was beyond angry. I was annoyed. My desire to see the play intensified with each failed attempt to locate the filmed footage. I was insulted by the depravity of  accessing something I strongly desired. This took me back to a time not long ago when I was growing up in Egypt during the 80s and 90s. Back to a time when access to books and movies where restricted. If one could afford to buy books with bloated prices due to taxes and tariffs, one couldn't always find what they were looking for. The scarcity of bookstores, pre-Diwan, and censorship made it difficult to find certain materials. Even Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian Nobel laureate for literature, was not spared the scrutiny of narrow minded censors. Films were butchered and violated in the name of virtue. During my school days, video tapes smuggled from abroad were a hot commodity, with Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instincts at the top of everyone's choices. Yes, we congregated around a friend's entertainment center and giggled at the stylized sex scenes, but we also enjoyed an unadulterated version of Oliver Stone's JFK. With these forbidden fruits, my disdain for censorship was born. As years past, Egypt became enlightened and technology advanced. With satellite television and the internet, an abundance of content is available literally at my finger tips, but not Danny Boyle's Frankenstein.

The makers of the play state that their production was meant to be seen in the theater. Anything else diminishes from the experience. An opinion I can respect as their artistic prerogative. Yet, filming the play indicated that the creators intended for it to been seen in a medium other than a live performance. So, why limit it to a cinema screen? I have no doubt that the live performance was electrifying and moving in ways not transpired to remote viewership. In an interview, Miller states that the play was created in a manner to provide every member in the audience with the same experience, allowing Frankenstein and his creature to be viewed in the same light regardless of seat position. Am I to infer that a larger than life cinema projection provides a similar perspective. What difference does it make and why must the creators dictate how audiences enjoy their creation? Why film the play and not give access to the masses?

As a teenager I didn't have the means to travel to London, Paris or New York to view illustrated art in museums. The only resources I had were prints and art books. I learned early on that I had a proclivity for  Degas and Monet. Yet, nothing prepared me for Monet's magnificent  water lilies when I had the opportunity to see it in person years later. Visiting MoMA in Manhattan, I sat on a bench in front of the massive canvas, jaws wide open in awe. The visible brush strokes gave the drawing a third dimension, transporting me to the 1800s as I stood before the landscape, breathless. The years spent admiring a small print of the painting, inspired me to go to the museum in the first place. I am sure Mary Shelley intended for her Frankenstein to be read not seen, yet that did not stop her from attending theater productions of her master piece. Shakespeare is meant to be seen not read, yet who amongst us doesn't have a favorite play they secretly read every year. The creation of art is a selfish act. Artists seek to relate their point of view through their work. Once the art is publicly released, it belongs to the audience to do with it as they may. Artists cannot, nor should they, control how their work is received by others. Nowadays, there is so much talk about political democracy and freedom of speech. What about the freedom to experience beauty and to be inspired by it. Who will uphold such freedoms if not artists. So, to the creators of Danny Boyle's Frankenstein, I petition the release of this magnificent creature into society to be loved and to be marveled.

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