Why I Don’t Love the New Yorker Festival Anymore
You know how they say, “One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch”? Well, I’ve finally had my one bad apple at the New Yorker Festival, and I’m still getting over that queasy feeling.
I’ve already shared my complete dissatisfaction with Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous with you, but I didn’t tell you anything about the event that featured the viewing.
In addition to a sneak peek of the film at the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) in Manhattan, the festival also billed the event as a conversation with James Shapiro, noted Shakespeare scholar and—perhaps most importantly—the author of Contested Will, and the film’s director Emmerich. Okay, I thought, then the $35 ticket and the ridiculous convenience fees will be worth it. Besides, I like seeing movies at the DGA; it’s in the same block as Carnegie Hall and the Russian Tea Room, so I always feel like I’m getting a little extra swagger with my flick, even though there are no popcorn or Twizzlers in the place.
Well, we know how the movie went, for me at least, but the crowd was pretty ecstatic about it. These people had clearly gotten their money’s worth, but I needed more. I needed to hear Shapiro validate my extreme irritation with the film, so while other disgusted audience members filed out, I stayed put.
I don’t know who the woman was who moderated this talk, but she was no-nonsense in a way that actually killed conversation. What she wanted (and was going to have, even if she had to cut somebody) was a series of statements from the two parties, and no monkey business. Turns out, that might have been for the best, because by the time Shapiro was done with his opening statement, these two men hated each other.
Let me back up. I’ve seen Shapiro talk four times now. This is a man with a head full of knowledge and a lovely way of expressing himself. When he’s irritated, though, his glibness can become razor sharp. Moreover, his face registers disdain and disapproval in ways that carry all the way to the back of the room, as they say. I’ve heard him speak on the question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays before, so I was expecting him to be tough; I wasn’t expecting him to have been rendered speechless by his dissatisfaction.
Not totally speechless, of course, but this was not Shapiro on his A-game. One of the first things he said was, “This movie is factually inaccurate in virtually every respect.” There was a smattering a applause for that statement—including mine—but he seemed to have trouble framing the specifics of his assertion. Rather than a litany of details that Emmerich had gotten wrong, he got stuck on the point Emmerich seemed to be making that if the movie was true at all, than Shakespeare/Oxford was merely a propagandist, not an artist, not even an artisan making saleable goods for consumption. “I’ve long been interested in why smart people believe dumb things,” he said, repeating that there isn’t a shred of evidence to connecting Oxford to the plays, but he couldn’t put forward the more compelling material he does have.
To be clear, though, this was not a debate and not a point-counterpoint display of research and scholarship. Emmerich was expressing his intentions with the film and the premises he worked with, and Shapiro was expressing his concern that people might believe him. He seemed almost choked by the notion that Emmerich could take such a high post with the authorship issue without a reason. It would seem that Emmerich and his team are packaging this movie with a documentary and document packet for schoolchildren, so they can learn the truth of these plays as Emmerich and his, um, scholars have presented it. Shapiro wanted to know why Emmerich thought he needed to do that, but he couldn’t quite express why he was so incensed by the idea, aside from his contention that the facts were wrong, though he could barely express which ones he meant.
There were some questions after that short chat, and what the questions revealed was how ready people were to buy the story Emmerich had presented because they found the film entertaining. Not one person questioned Emmerich’s sources or his process or even the fact that in addition to destroying Shakespeare’s myth in this movie, he seemed very interested in destroying Jonson’s and Elizabeth’s as well. And for what?
Shapiro did manage to land one solid punch. When Emmerich asked why there was no evidence that this great playwright had ever owned and bequeathed books and manuscripts to his children—a piece of proof for him that Shakespeare was a Stratford merchant and not a London writer—Shapiro pointed out that Shakespeare had indeed left books and manuscripts to his son-in-law…on the second page of his will. Emmerich said, “Well, I did not know that,” and Shapiro countered with, “Well, you shouldn’t have skipped that part of your research.” And I knew he was finally recovering from his head punch and was ready to get into the ring with some grit. But it was over. The moderator rang the bell, so to speak, and sent us out into the rain without anything substantial to take away with us.
And that’s why I’m sick of the New Yorker Festival: exorbitant ticket prices, inane events, and conversations that aren’t actually conversations. It felt like I’d been lured to some back alley, hit in the head with a sap, and rolled like a drunk for all the money in my pockets. But I am wiser than I was before. I will never follow a hooker again…I mean, get suckered into jumping at those tickets the second they go on sale. I’ll wait, instead, for a nice bright moment, like the kind the Shakespeare Society provides, and I’ll put my money on that!