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‘Julius Caesar’ Isn’t Enough: Why Tasteless Art Will Never Defeat Donald Trump


The media tempest surrounding the Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park has filled fat column inches for days. In case you’ve been consumed by more weighty matters filling the headlines – I don’t need to remind you, I trust? — two of the theater’s corporate sponsors, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, withdrew their support of the company when it was learned that in Oskar Eustis’s production, the title character was depicted, none too subtly, as a simulacrum of Donald Trump. (The production was barely into its first week when an alt-right protestor rushed the stage.)

In the play, you will recall, things don’t go well for Caesar, as he is betrayed by his intimates and stabbed to death in one of the more famous onstage murders in Shakespeare – of which there are plenty. While this arts-funding scandal naturally raised a dark hue and cry in cultural spheres, it receded from the national discussion when a gunman opened fired on Republican congressman practicing for a baseball game.

These events were of course unrelated, despite an appalling retweet from Trump’s son Donald Jr. intimating a connection between the two – like father, like son. And yet occurring back to back, they did seem to underscore that the tide of virulence, paranoia and anxiety sweeping the country continues to mount as the days of an unruly and unsettling presidency tick by.

I attended a small rally supporting the Public Theater at Astor Place on Thursday, and then headed uptown to see the production about which so much digital ink has been spilled. I left in a state of some dejection. As many critics and Eustis himself have naturally pointed out, “Julius Caesar” is hardly a play that advocates the assassination of overweening political leaders. In turning to violent means, the assassins destroy themselves, and Rome’s already endangered democracy. Blood begets blood, and, as in many Shakespeare plays, the stage ends up littered with corpses of Romans noble and otherwise.

But there is a bit of sophistry involved in critics’ defending the production on the basis of the complexity of Shakespeare’s play and the ideas about rulership and politics it embodies. For as it is presented by Eustis, it would be difficult for most in the audience to see beyond the gaudily presented parallels between Caesar and Trump. The actor portraying Caesar, Gregg Henry, wears crotch-skimming brightly hued ties, and is married to a svelte younger beauty who speaks in a Slavic accent. Accompanying the production throughout is the vague, slightly distracting sound of someone outside the theater, or on its periphery, bellowing angrily. A pink knit pussy hat makes an appearance.

It was these ham-handed signifiers that the audience I saw the play with responded to with knowing laughter. No surprise there, of course: the overlap between Shakespeare in the Park regulars and Trump supporters is presumably infinitesimal. But as someone whose disdain for Trump probably equals anyone’s, I still came away feeling that, whatever Eustis’s larger aims — “ ‘Julius Caesar’ is about how fragile democracy is,” he writes, correctly, in a program note — the production was essentially exploiting Shakespeare’s play as a blunt instrument, inevitably inviting audiences to smirk at the cheeky parallels rather than engage with the play’s ideas on any deeper level.

Oscar Eustis'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Play Opening Night, New York, America - 13 Oct 2010

Oscar Eustis


Coming on the heels of the controversy surrounding the comic Kathy Griffin’s faux-beheading photo, for which she was publicly pilloried and immediately dumped by CNN as New Year’s Eve host, and the similar fracas that erupted when Stephen Colbert used a vulgar (and yes, homophobic) phrase to describe the relationship between Trump and Putin, the Public Theater’s production left me with the dispiriting sense that artists and performers, in their natural desire to call out the president and his policies for their inhumanity and their recklessness, are taking a page from his own puerile playbook.

Trump, after all, has flooded the Twittersphere with intemperate outbursts, unfounded attacks, vitriolic flights of character assassination. He is currently a potential defendant in a lawsuit accusing him of inciting violence during his campaign rallies. At those rallies, the atmosphere of brutality and hostility toward Americans who opposed his campaign practically seared your hand as you reached for the remote control to change the channel.

And it’s understandable, I suppose, that when a politician and his followers engage in this kind of brutal combat – and succeed in winning the presidency through it – it is natural for his opponents to attempt similarly hard-charging tactics. But for artists and performers to allow their own work to be tainted by the vulgarity spewing so regularly from the capital is dismaying to watch, and I’m afraid I would have to classify Eustis’s blunt-edged production as an exercise in obvious vulgarity.

To be clear, artists of course have a right to express themselves any way they choose. Tastelessness is sometimes a necessary tactic, a way of shocking the audience into awareness; goodness knows we are all guilty of becoming lulled into indifference by the endless onslaught of entertainment options blinking from all of our screens. But it’s also a cheap one, and it doesn’t supply the kind of stimulation and nourishment that resides in more restrained, ambiguous and subtle forms of art.

I am, of course, dismayed by the craven behavior of the corporations who pulled funding from the Public Theater. Most disturbing is the potentially chilling effect their decision could have on smaller regional theaters across the country, whose commitment to politically engaged works may now be endangered. As Jeremy Gerard reported in Deadline, theaters that happen to have Shakespeare in their name – and, naturally, there are plenty – have been assailed by vitriolic and even violent threats once the right-wing press began covering the Public Theater’s production. And speaking of craven, it is a thorough disgrace, although perhaps not a surprise, that the National Endowment for the Arts put out a statement, protesting rather much, that it had in no way given support to the Public Theater for the production. (Who even knows who’s running the NEA these days? Has Ryan Seacrest added it to his broad portfolio? I’m sure his nomination would sail through Congress.)

It is alarming that the corporate arts funding that is so necessary for art to thrive in America – given the puny budget of the NEA – may be in danger. Timidity on the part of corporations has become much more pronounced as the political sphere has become so radically polarized. But I worry just as much about the pollution of artists’ sensitivities by the juvenility and thoughtlessness that seems to be holding greater sway in the culture in the Trump era. None of us lives in a vacuum, after all, and we are all susceptible to influences that we absorb from the media. Those influences are fairly toxic these days. Some fine art has arisen from angry impulses and a virulent reaction against an oppressive political atmosphere. But most good art, and maybe all great art, has not.

Trump swept into Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” That immediately became a risible notion. What I fear is happening instead is that the toxicity of Washington is spreading into the culture, and the world of the arts, in ways that will ultimately be damaging. It is practically impossible, after all, to swim in a swamp and not get a bacterial infection or two.

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‘Black Panther’ Scorches Box Office Records, Sets the Bar for 2018 and Beyond


Marvel’s “Black Panther” (Disney) arrived with a record-breaking bang at the 2018 box office, outperforming pre-opening estimates for its three day U.S./Canada opening.

Check out its all-time records: “Black Panther” bests “Deadpool” by more than $50 million as the best February and pre-March opening weekends ever. It tops last year’s “Beauty and the Beast” as the best pre-May debut of all time. It nearly doubles “Furious 7” as the best opening for a black-directed film. It is triple the best previous record (held by “Straight Outta Compton”) for initial weekend of a film with a primarily black cast.

Those numbers will be re-counted when Sunday’s actual numbers are reported, plus the boost the movie will get from a four-day semi-holiday on Monday. And adjusting to an even playing field still leaves “Black Panther” remarkably (considering the month of release) among the ten best openers ever.

“Black Panther”

Ryan Coogler’s breakout film “Fruitvale Station” did well in limited release and commercial sequel “Creed” marked a decent wide release. But “Black Panther”‘s grosses are seismic and game-changing for the director. The movie is the biggest non-“Star Wars” opener since “Jurassic World” (with a prime June release date) nearly three years ago. Yes, “Black Panther” comes from within the lucrative comic book universe of adaptations, but by those high standards it ranks #4 (adjusted) after both “Avengers” films and “Spider-Man 3.”

There have been 13 Marvel or D.C. Comic book releases since “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opened to (an adjusted) $204 million in May, 2015. A majority have opened over $100 million (including similar game-changer “Wonder Woman.” But no comic book movie since (the best off-season opener “Batman v. Superman” opened to an adjusted $178 million, “Deadpool” $141 million), despite showcasing a who’s who of comic world characters (“Thor,” “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and the ensemble in “Suicide Squad”) boasted the appeal of this long-overdue all-black cast of heroes and villains starring in an African myth.

The huge initial interest that propelled many fans to Thursday night and Friday shows likely account for a Saturday decline somewhat above some other recent Marvel and D.C. titles. The falloff was 13 per cent (from a higher starting point from most others) for its second full day from the initial totals. “Thor: Ragnarok” dropped  five per cent, “Wonder Woman” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” eight per cent.

But “The Avengers” also boasted an A+ CInemascore and dropped slightly more (14 per cent) on its initial Saturday on its way to a domestic total that was triple its opening (adjusted, its domestic total was just over $700 million).

Can “Black Panther” repeat that kind of long-term performance? There’s no way to judge after two days. The four-day totals will give a hint, but next weekend will be more key to assessing the future.

But even a standard ultimate showing (which would leave this somewhere around $500 million domestic – about 25 per cent above “Wonder Woman”) would change the rules about what American moviegoers want to see. “Black Panther” will elevate a wider range of stories, including Hollywood’s core big-budget action adventures. Yes, there has been a steady supply of black-centered releases going back to blaxploitation in the 1970s, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy lead the way in the 1980s and so on. But these often have come with non-minority creative control, and usually with lower budgets and compensation for many principles based on perceived economics.

"Black Panther"

“Black Panther”

The main excuse for not green-lighting similar films with the $300 million plus production and marketing costs expended on “Black Panther” is the resistance seen historically to black-centered films overseas. The foreign market for top-end productions (though not the “Star Wars” series) is expected to provide roughly two-thirds of the total gross for high end films. “Panther” debuted in a majority of the world, though not the key territories of China, Japan, or Russia yet.

The gross for these initial territories came in a little less than the domestic return ($169 million). What happens in the remainder of them will be important. But it would be reasonable at this point to anticipate at least $400 million overseas, along with at least that much (low end total) domestic. That would put the film at over $800 million worldwide. That total wouldn’t have placed it quite in the global Top Ten for 2017 (it would be about the same as the most recent “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which soared overseas and was similarly expensive). “Wonder Woman” did $812 million combined, with a similar domestic/foreign split. And it’s good enough, to put it mildly, even if the domestic share is higher than usual. It just might take longer for foreign to catch up.

The performance boosted year-to-date numbers, which had fallen below 2017 so far, to a boost of over five per cent (by the time different week day calendars balance out by midweek). “Panther” made up about two thirds of ticket sales (a lower total that the better than 75 per cent share “The Last Jedi” took in its pre-Christmas weekend.)

Early Man

Drowned out by the film was Nick Park’s Aardman animation “Early Man” (Lionsgate), which could only take in an anemic $3,150,000. It was hurt among kids by the draw of the second weekend of the less sophisticated “Peter Rabbit” (Sony), which managed as decent $17,500,000 and a 31 per cent drop.

“Fifty Shades Freed” (Universal), last week’s #1, dropped 56 per cent to fall behind “Early Man” slightly. Buried among the figures during the week though was the film’s dominance on Wednesday (Valentine’s Day). It grossed nearly $11 million, more than half of the day’s business as the clear film of choice to drag men to that night.

Long-running hits “Jumanji: Welcome to the Club” (Sony) and “The Greatest Showman” (20th Century Fox) both dropped around 20 per cent, a bit above their recent average but both amazing holds for films around since Christmas. But they needed company going forward, assuming that “Panther” has decent legs, since they can’t be expected to sustain theaters that much longer.

“Early Man”

The Top Ten

1. Black Panther (Disney) NEW – Cinemascore: A+; Metacritic: 88; Est. budget: $200 million

$192,023,000 in 4,020 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $47,767,000; Cumulative: $192,023,000

2. Peter Rabbit (Sony) Week 2; Last weekend: #2

$17,250,000 (-31%) in 3,725 theaters (no change); PTA: $4,631; Cumulative: $48,223,000

3. Fifty Shades Freed (Universal) Week 2; Last weekend: #1

$16,940,000 (-56%) in 3,768 theaters (no change); PTA: $4,496; Cumulative: $76,134,000

4. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Sony) Week 9; Last weekend: #

$7,945,000 (-21%) in 2,800 theaters (-336); PTA: $2,838; Cumulative: $377,624,000

5. 15:17 to Paris (Warner Bros.) Week 2; Last weekend: #

$7,685,000 (-39%) in 3,042 theaters (no change); PTA: $2,526; Cumulative: $25,433,000

6. The Greatest Showman (20th Century Fox) Week 9; Last weekend: #5

$5,100,000 (-21%) in 1,936 theaters (-437); PTA: $2,634; Cumulative: $154,478,000

7. Early Man (Lionsgate) NEW – Cinemascore: B; Metacritic: 68; Est. budget: $50 million

$3,150,000 in 2,494 theaters; PTA: $1,263; Cumulative: $3,150,000

8. Maze Runner: The Death Cure (20th Century Fox) Week 4; Last weekend: #6

$2,525,000 (-59%) in 1,891 theaters (-1,032); PTA: $1,335; Cumulative: $54,005,000

9. Winchester (Lionsgate) Week 3; Last weekend: #7

$2,230,000 (-57%) in 1,471 theaters (-1,001); PTA: $1,508; Cumulative: $21,860,000

10. Samson (Pureflix) NEW – Metacritic: 17; no budget estimate reported

$1,972,000 in 1,249 theaters; PTA: $1,579; Cumulative: $1,972,000

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