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When he moans ‘Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief’, Othello is not at his most eloquent. Fanned by Iago’s suggestions, anger and jealousy put pressure on the expected principles of arrangement in Othello’s speech. The line falls in Act IV scene i just after the Moor moves from verse to prose and, by dropping metre, Othello rejects one method of linguistic organisation. The dashes quoted above reveal that syntax is also quickly disregarded – heightened emotions reduce sentiment to bare essentials. We’re presented with the first stages of a decay that is not fully realised: though Othello’s speech is in tatters, he faints before his words complete the transformation from highly organised poetry to the noise of grunts or groans or, in other words, of non-words.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Che Cosa Sono Le Nuvole? (1967) presents Othello as a human puppet show and uses the new design to finish the linguistic movement that the plays starts. At the opening of Act IV scene i, Othello echoes Iago’s phrases: ‘Will you think so?’ becomes ‘Think so, Iago?’; We move from ‘To kiss in private’ to ‘An unauthorised kiss’, from ‘naked with her friend in bed’ to simply ‘naked in bed’. These verbal similarities reveal how engrained Iago’s suggestions of sexual foul play have become. Che Cosa chooses to recast this moment of psychological manipulation, presenting it not as a series of verbal overlaps but instead as the point at which words (briefly) give way to noises. Iago’s delayed response to Desdemona’s request for Cassio to be reinstated is ‘Huuuum’. Othello, like the audience, wonders ‘Why do you say huuuum?’ Iago’s replies with an amused and mock-questioning scrunch of the face and the noise ‘Eeeeer.’ Again, Othello can only ask ‘And why do you say eeeeeer?’ The subtle engagement with and development of the source text allows, in this instance, much to be said with few words.

It seems Christopher Nolan does not agree with Mercutio. Quite early on in Romeo and Juliet (1594- 5), we learn what the latter thinks of dreams:

Romeo ‘Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.’

Mercutio ‘True. I talk of dreams’ (1.4).

Nolan clearly places, however, a lot of structural importance on the dreams in Inception (2010): each one provides a different narrative thread, all of which are tied together by someone asleep in the film’s real life. Indeed, some go so far as to say that dreams, rather than nothing, are everything in the film.

While this suggestion seems to tie up some apparent loose ends (such as Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio’s) children that do not age), it is, in a sense, too neat a reading for a film that revels in oneiric ambiguity. Part of the enjoyment of watching the picture derives from the tensions between dreamscape and (the possibility of) reality: we’re invited to ask how these two states affect one another. Romeo also wrestles with such questions: ‘If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, / My dreams presage some joyful news at hand.’ (5.1) The question that lingers behind the first line (‘can we trust what we see in dreams?’) is a warning, of sorts, to those who wish to draw thick lines between dream and reality and to expound confidently how they relate: Romeo evidently can’t trust the ‘flattering truth’, as, in the end, he and Juliet lie, not married, but dead.

My favourite shot from Inception also has a parallel in Romeo and Juliet, though this time I mean the 1996 film version by Baz Luhrmann. Despite the whizz-bangs of folding cities and paradoxical staircases, it is a (relatively) simple interior near the beginning of the film that stays with me: it is when Cobb meets Saito (Ken Watanabe) in a room decorated with gold and in which innumerable hanging lanterns are doubled in a large reflective table. The shot reminds me of the closing of Romeo and Juliet, when the camera moves slowly upwards, revealing the two corpses surrounded by countless small candles.

Whether or not multiple light sources are actually Nolan’s signature remains to be seen, but the shot is a beautiful way to open a provocative film. It’s exciting to see a picture cause so much discussion and debate. Nonetheless, before a viewer tries to suggest too forcefully that she has worked out what’s definitely going on, she could bear in mind Bottom’s words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595): ‘Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream.’ (4.1)

Recently, as I was watching Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night came to mind. Both spectacles generate much of their comedy from the cross-dressing of their protagonists. Equally, both are initiated by a more serious note: while the play (almost) opens with a shipwreck, Some Like it Hot‘s Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) must don dresses because they accidently witness (what looks like) the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre.

But with hindsight, the specifics of Joe’s cross-dressing feel closer to those of As You Like It. Joe, dressed as Josephine, discovers that Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) wants to meet a millionaire with a yacht, a railroad car and his own toothpaste. (S)he then dresses as a man, posing as a millionaire, in an attempt to woo the unsuspecting Sugar. In As You Like It, when she flees her uncle Frederick’s court, Rosalind must dress as a boy (Ganymede) to survive. (S)he, then, to help Orlando court Rosalind, pretends to be a woman and allows him to practise. In other words, in the film, a man dresses as a woman, who then dresses as a man; in the play, a woman dresses as a man, who then pretends to be a woman. It’s all less confusing on screen or stage.

It is from such multi-layered cross-dressing that the picture derives its structure as well as its laughs. It begins loosely when the dresses go on and ends when identities are revealed. Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) provides an unexpected reaction to such identity shifting in the famous final exchange: to Jerry’s revelation “I’m a man!”, Osgood calmly acknowledges that “Nobody’s perfect.” The line was coined the night before shooting finished by producer I.A.L. ‘Iz’ Diamond.

The tone of Osgood’s reaction is at once extremely funny and subtly philosophical. Much of the success (and comedy) of the film stems from such (only slightly but nonetheless) muted psychological and aesthetic choices. The main source for the picture was the German farce Fanfaren der Liebe (1951) in which two unemployed musicians are emphatically camp. Joe and Jerry, though, are clearly heterosexual: they need an extremely good reason to masquerade as women and, while being broke is not enough, being chased by mobsters convinces them to shave their legs. The scene on the train, with the two men surrounded by beautiful women, does not reach the pitch of a camp farce but instead becomes comically excruciating. Joe must remind Jerry: “Steady, boy. Just keep telling yourself you’re a girl.”

Wilder overrode arguments against filming in black and white, not only to enhance the 1920s period setting but also to mute the makeup. If rendered in colour, the men’s transformation would slide from amusing to grotesque. Thankfully, it is not: the result is, for the American Film Institute at least, the Best Comedy of All Time.

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