For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Secret Defense: Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous"

The preeminent stealth Pop artist of big, loud Hollywood movies pretends to make a movie about Shakespeare.

"All art is political, otherwise it would just be decoration," proclaims sad-eyed Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) in Anonymous. "If artists didn't have anything to say, they'd make shoes."

You almost expect him to add: "So you see, there's more to the films of Roland Emmerich that you thought!"

And then: "I'm a stand-in for this film's director. Get it?"

After all, it's difficult not to think of de Vere—a neglected genius who collects curios and writes plays in which prominent cultural figures (in this case, his enemies in the royal court) get killed before a cheering audience—as an alter-ego for Emmerich, a stealth artist who collects kitsch and directs movies where pop culture landmarks are obliterated before forgiving summer moviegoers worldwide. de Vere spins his personal vendettas into enduring poetry; Emmerich has turned his Pop Art aspirations into lucrative spectacle, vaporizing the White House on two separate occasions (Independence Day and the batshit-crazy apocalypse smorgasbord 2012) before a paying audience.

As many critics have pointed out, the Oxfordian Theory—the literary conspiracy yarn at the center of Anonymous—is crap. Of course it is. First introduced by J. Thomas Looney (a really unfortunate surname if you're going into the conspiracy theory business) in 1920 and spun into its current unwieldy shape by Looneyites like Percy Allen and Paul Streitz, the whole thing turns around the idea that the most mutable texts in the English language can only truly be understood through the biography of an obscure 16th century aristocrat. "Shakespeare" is just a front for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and, regardless of what you may think, Hamlet is really just about de Vere's relationship with the father-and-son political duo of William and Robert Cecil.  Throw in later embellishments—including incest—and what you end up with is a knotty, lurid melodrama disguised as literary scholarship. Said knotty, lurid melodrama doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, but it does make a pretty damn good plot for a movie: stripped of all power, a nearly bankrupt earl turns to writing plays pseudonymously as part of an elaborate political chess game against his opponents. 

Roland Emmerich originally enrolled in film school as a production designer, a fact that's on full display in his thesis film / debut feature The Noah's Ark Principle, a slow-as-molasses Ridley Scott knock-off that seems less a movie and more a record of its own resourceful special effects and art direction (produced on the modern equivalent of $1.2 million, it's probably the most expensive student film ever made, but looks like it could've easily cost several times more).  Since then, he's gravitated to lavishing his attention on show-offy moments of spectacle while directing dialogue scenes with increasing diffidence—a tendency that sort of reaches its apex in 2012, a movie where hyper-detailed panoramas of mass destruction are intercut with indifferently framed, frequently ugly-looking shots of actors.

So, in a sense, the knicknacky mise-en-scène of Anonymous represents a return to Emmerich's roots. Images are stuffed with "period" details; you get the sense that, if Emmerich could add footnotes to every shot, he would. Like a lot of contemporary period films, Anonymous presents a past that's almost unreasonably filthy (a decades-long reaction to the impeccably-clean Romes and Old Wests of the 1950s?), and it wallows in this filth: Queen Elizabeth has hideous teeth, Edward de Vere and Henry Wriothesley balance on planks while crossing a muddy street, and everything looks dank and damp. Like the Oxfordian Theory itself, it's scholarship gone berserk—a bit of research growing, tick-like, into a fat, overwrought notion.

And it's not unreasonable to think that it's the "overwroughtness"—not the scholarship—that attracts Emmerich. Emmerich is notorious for building films around pet causes and then, at best, paying lip service to them; he may be serious about global warming, but it probably wasn't the urgency of the cause that lead him to make The Day After Tomorrow—it was the ability to engulf the Statue of Liberty with a tidal wave. Similarly, the original impetus behind Anonymous might have been Emmerich's serious interest in Oxfordianism; the film even has noted Oxfordian Derek Jacobi—probably the only person to ever act in a Roland Emmerich movie out of principle—on hand to introduce the plot (Jacobi's prologue, by the way, bears a passing resemblance to Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Mâcon). But the locus of the movie isn't a serious consideration of the Oxfordian Theory, which gets played for maximum melodramatic fun, but the persona of de Vere and Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff's conception of Elizabethan theater.  

For what it's worth, Emmerich's idea of Elizabethan drama—as a sort of violent, spastic drag show—is remarkably consistent with his Pop-blockbuster sensibility. Emmerich and Orloff's "Shakespeare" / de Vere is a great artist not because he lucidly expresses some universal truth, but because of the effect he has on a mass audience. Consistent with this whole idea, Anonymous contains more shots of the audience reacting than of the performers acting.

This creates a sort of internal conflict: Anonymous is trying to celebrate obscurity and populism at the same time. Great art is that which affects the most people, but great artists don't come out and take bows. In one of many (largely funny, sometimes grating) parallels Emmerich and Orloff draw between the Elizabethan stage and the modern American film industry, de Vere's front, actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall)a barely-literate buffoon whose only interests are booze, big breasts and bear fightsrecites a parody of an Oscar acceptance speech after a performance ends in a standing ovation, taking all of the credit for de Vere's work.  

Per Anonymous, the formula for "great art" must then be: that which is at once faithful to what its audience wants (in de Vere's case, plot twists, pretty words and political wish-fulfillment, with unpopular hunchback Robert Cecil killed off in the guise of Richard III) and its own secret agenda. Again, it's hard not to see this as self-vindication: Emmerich works out his arty side by making the most expensive Pop images in history and giving Jaye Davidson $1 million, and millions of people are able to enjoy popcorn and air conditioning to it. Or, to put it another way: a movie about the lowest form of criticism, biographical interpretation, is custom-built to invite biographical interpretation. It lays its own Oxfordian trap: if Richard III is Robert Cecil and Hamlet is political, then the theater must be cinema and Edward de Vere has to be Roland Emmerich...

Layered beneath a story about secret agendas is a secret agenda that, like all of that peripheral period bric-a-brac, constantly calls attention to itself. Confused yet? Art as a combination of catering to mass sensibilities and following personal goals, the creation of the English language's most enduring works as flashback-filled high camp, great poets as broody shut-insvisions don't get more ludicrous, recursive or consistent.

Deleted
This is getting interesting. Mann, Scott, Bay, McTiernan, and now Emmerich. Who’s next for the 21st century (mainstream Hollywood action-based) auteurist treatment? We’re sliding further and further down the scale of values. Soon, I’ll be pining for returning the attention to Mann and in comparison celebrating him as an artist on par with Welles, Hitchcock, Coppola, and the other legends through the decades (truth be told, he’s the best of all his “21st century” contemporaries). I finally see your dastardly plan, Notebook editors!
Guess we should only talk about the canon, huh Bobby, ignore the rest?
Deleted
Not at all, my friend. Not at all. I don’t have anything against this attention in principle. As you can see, I read all of these articles and forum threads with great interest to see where it is all headed. Believe me, I’m the last one that wants to see another article on Godard or Hitchcock, and I love the guys!
I recently watched an interview with Emmerich where he’s got a rather artfully torn hole two inches below his knee, like there was some rogue, disastrous nail somewhere in the lobby of the CAA office: Now that’s production design. Bobby: Uh, Coppola…? I hope you must mean Sofia…? I can’t speak for my comrades, but I’m always cynically pursuing the largest audience to irritate: middlebrows.
Deleted
I encourage you guys to keep doing this. All art should be analyzed.
rado
Bravo! More of this please.
Deleted
I meant Francis Ford, but only as an example of a commonly-accepted legend of cinema. I can take him or leave him myself. Don’t know enough about Sofia to say the same thing. I’ve only seen “Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette” which I liked, but not enough to stand up and clap for.
Deleted
Your gratuitous attacks on Roland Emmerich, a director of courage and integrity, cannot hide the fact that you have failed to do any research or investigation of the issues raised in the film. The film’s premise may not be the one you feel most comfortable with but it’s the one that comes closest to the truth. Perhaps you want a nice warm story about a small town genius who parlayed a grammar school education into becoming the greatest writer in the English language. Sorry, that may fit your romantic notions but unfortunately, that is far from the truth. The Elizabethan world WAS full of political intrigue and oppression. There was no Internet or mass media. The only form of communication was through the theaters. Artists, who dared to portray the court in a less than favorable way, real or implied, were routinely thrown into the Tower, even murdered while theaters were burned and closed down for years. For self-preservation, the use of pseudonyms was widespread. artists such as Edward de Vere, a poet and playwright who owned a theater company and was praised for his plays and poems, had to use the pseudonym of William Shake-speare to protect himself and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men/King’s Men from the iron hand of the Puritan state. If there is any conspiracy in this case, it is the collusion of the academic establishment and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to stifle discussion on a serious and complex subject perhaps to protect their reputations and even their livelihood. The Stratfordians have only three arguments repeated endlessly by their parrots in the news media who it seems are averse to thinking for themselves. 1) Oxfordians think that only an aristocrat could have written the plays. Wrong. The accusation that Oxfordians are snobs is old and tired and obscures the real issues. This debate is not who could have, should have, or would have written the plays, but about who did. It is a question of evidence and any individual with an open mind willing to do some research will find it very clear that Edward de Vere is the author of the Shakespeare canon. 2) Oxford died in 1604 so he could not have written plays published years later? Wrong. Dates of performance or of publication do not tell us the date of composition. Since we do not have the manuscripts, dating of the plays is conjecture and supposition. The astute professors and Stratfordian directors cannot explain why Shake-speare did not edit his own plays for publication during his years of retirement. The Sonnets were published in 1609, while Shake-spere was alive, yet the Dedication refers to the author as “ever-living” — which means that the author is dead, but his works are still immortal. 3) There is a ton of evidence proving that Shakespeare was the man from Stratford. Wrong. There isn’t a shred of evidence that ever connected the author Shake-speare to William of Stratford. During his lifetime, no one, repeat no one has ever claimed to have met the man. Supposed records either refer to non-literary court records about the Stratford man’s legal problems or they refer to the author by his pen name, “William Shakespeare." One must have a sense of curiosity, true open-mindedness, respect for evidence and the capacity to think critically when approaching this issue, qualities lacking in the above article.
Deleted
Gratuitous attacks on Emmerich? He liked the film.
Deleted
And that passionate defense is more aimed at the Shakespeare myth than the qualities of film itself, or Emmerich’s qualities as a director.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features