Show Me the Magic

Gregory Wolfe

Tempest, 1982. Directed by Paul Mazursky.

Self-indulgent. Uneven. Disjointed. Meandering. These are just a few of the choice words from viewer reviews about Paul Mazursky’s Tempest (1982) on the Internet Movie Database. But here are a few more: Masterpiece. Gem. Classic. Given those diametrically opposed views, I have no idea what you, dear reader, would make of this film. As they say on the internet these days, YMMV (your mileage may vary).

I can’t even remember how I was first introduced to Tempest. It’s likely that two things caught my attention: a stellar cast and the fact that the film was based on Shakespeare’s late romance, one of my favorite plays.

To be honest, I’m not a film buff, though I have great respect for the art form. I’d simply rather read a book than watch a movie. (Though I am digging the recent trend in television toward long-arc storytelling, from Mad Men and The Wire to Battlestar Galactica and beyond—reminiscent of the way Dickens and others in the nineteenth century published their novels in serial form.)

And precisely because of my bookishness, I’m a sucker for adaptations of Shakespeare. Yes, it’s true that some terrible versions have been made, setting his plays in absurd and inappropriate historical periods and costumes. But some adaptations have been brilliant. It is a tribute to the universality of the Bard’s themes and insights into human nature that allow different settings to help us see facets of the play that might otherwise escape us.

So what have director Mazursky and his screenwriter, Leon Capetanos, given us? Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy centers on the sorcerer Prospero, who lives on an island with his daughter, Miranda, the spirit Ariel, and the island’s bestial native, Caliban. Prospero was once the Duke of Milan, but his brother usurped him with the aid of the King of Naples.

In exile, Prospero has devoted himself to the study of the arcane and the magical. The play begins with the titular tempest, which Prospero has caused (through his instrument, Ariel) to shipwreck his brother and the King of Naples, who were passing by the island on their way to Italy.

Tempest translates this to the late twentieth century. Prospero becomes Philip Dimitrius (John Cassavetes), a gifted architect, who is going through a mid-life crisis. He feels creatively and professionally thwarted, stuck working for the wealthy and powerful Alonso (Vittorio Gassman), building a monstrosity of a casino. Meanwhile his wife Antonia (played by Cassavetes’s real-life wife, Gena Rowlands), an aspiring actress with her own unfulfilled needs, is having an affair with Alonso. Their daughter, Miranda (the fourteen year-old Molly Ringwald in her film debut), is emerging from childhood into an awareness of her sexuality.

When the affair is discovered, Philip decides to abscond to a Greek island. Hurt and hungry for adventure, Miranda decides to go with him. On their way, Philip meets an expat American, Aretha (Susan Sarandon as “Ariel”), who decides to abandon her dead-end job as a nightclub singer in Athens and accompany them to the island. She becomes Philip’s lover. In this idyllic place they encounter the island’s sole inhabitant, the scruffy goatherd Kalibanos (Raul Julia), who lives in a cave with his prized possession, a Sony Trinitron TV.

All of this unfolds in a leisurely manner—the source of the accusation that the film is “meandering.” Mazursky certainly challenges our Hollywood-trained brains, which demand a swift, three-act crisis-and-resolution. But it is precisely the film’s attention to character development and time that fascinate me. The scene where Philip returns to the apartment drunk, interrupting an evening Antonia is having with her theater friends, is exquisitely, squirmingly embarrassing, as Philip insists on dancing with her producer (none other than Mazursky himself). There’s also a touching scene where Philip travels from the glass-and-chrome world of Manhattan to visit his father, in Greek ethnic Brooklyn, with the subway rumbling overhead. Or take the moment when Aretha sings a comically bad version of “Hava Nagila” in a Greek nightclub to a room full of camera-wielding Asian tourists…

Call these scenes “novelistic,” if you like. Which is why I love them, I suppose. YMMV.

But it’s on the island where everything comes together—and also threatens to break apart, violently. At first, the idyll seems, well, idyllic. Kalibanos shows them the beauties of the island. Philip becomes his mentor. There’s swimming in the Aegean during the day and wine and olives in the evening. Kalibanos invites them all to dance with his goats to the tune of “New York, New York.” Aretha becomes like a big sister to Miranda—on the beach, whilst cleaning rugs, they serenade Philip with a rendition of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”

In time, however, cracks begin to show. The two women find Philip’s quasi-ascetical life boring; they feel isolated and pine for a few of civilization’s basic amenities. Then Kalibanos begins to show interest in Miranda in a way that scares and infuriates Philip. Cassavetes does a marvelous job modulating from mere gruffness and mid-life alienation to something darker and more dangerous.

It is in this transformation that the film’s plot hinges. Shakespeare and Mazursky want us to sympathize with Prospero—and we do. After all, he has escaped from a world of power, pragmatism, and self-interest, a world of superficiality and venality. He has chosen being over doing, beauty and simplicity and things for their own sake rather than for their utility. His studies into the mysteries of the universe begin as an exploration of nature—the way things truly are—an attempt to cooperate with the created order rather than impose the brittle man-made world upon it.

But Prospero’s genius for magic devolves into just another form of power, enslaving Ariel and Caliban and threatening to cut his daughter Miranda off from life and love. In the end there is no escape: the world follows us wherever we go, because it is inside us.

Then, in the film as in the play, Alonso and Antonia and their son Freddy (Ferdinand) arrive in a pleasure yacht and Philip conjures up his tempest: “Show me the magic,” he intones. The shipwrecked wash up on the island and Philip discovers that Kalibanos has made a move on Miranda.

And so in Mazursky’s film the feast they share is menaced by all the divisions and discords that have been building up… comedy and tragedy sit cheek by jowl. Until a goat is killed. Sacrificed. The unbearable tension is released, dissolved, in the spilling of the goat’s blood.

Thanks to this scapegoat, tragedy is averted. Now love and forgiveness make reconciliation possible.

Shakespeare’s greatest comedies are beloved precisely because they contain within themselves the real possibility of tragedy (think of Beatrice’s sudden cry of “Kill Claudio!” in Much Ado) and they often end in a melancholy fashion with at least one character who doesn’t find a partner. Prospero has nearly been destroyed by raw political power and self-interest. He has sought a better way to live—his magic does indeed evince a deeper, contemplative knowledge of both the natural and supernatural worlds. But his very creativity and independence—his best traits—devolve into paranoia and tyranny when he chooses revenge over forgiveness.

Mazursky’s Tempest, in all its meandering glory, does the Bard honor and reminds me of how my humanity is in need of being saved by the sacrifice of an Other.

Gregory Wolfe is the publisher and editor of Slant Books and the author of Intruding Upon the Timeless, Beauty Will Save the World, and The Operation of Grace.