Terminating Shakespeare with Extreme Prejudice: Postcolonial Cultural Cannibalism, Serial Quotation, and the Cinematic Spectacle of 1990s American Cultural Imperialism
In the romantic comedy L. A. Story (dir. Steve Martin, 1991) Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin), a television weather forecaster going through a mid-life crisis, brings his date Sara (Victoria Tennant) to a graveyard where “lots of famous people” are buried: “Rocky Marciano, Benny Goodman, and, of course, William Shakespeare.” As Telemacher pulls away overgrown ivy that has obscured the headstone, we first see engraved on it “William Shakespeare / Born 1564 / Died 1616” and then, as the camera pans down, “Lived in Los Angeles / 1614–1616.” Telemacher adds, “I think he wrote Hamlet, Part Eight: the Revenge here.” The humor of this line depends on an opposition between Shakespeare and Hollywood, an opposition the film at once affirms and deconstructs. On the one hand, Shakespeare is the fountainhead of English high culture, in short, of Western civilization; on the other, Hollywood mass culture is conceived as repetitive, derivative, capable only of cannibalizing itself. Telemacher’s joke about a Hollywood Hamlet, Part Eight: the Revenge opposes Hamlet, which is an original masterpiece, and tragedy, to Friday the Thirteenth, parts 1 through 8, which are a number of sequels, and the teen horror film. In opposing high and low culture in these terms, L. A. Story conforms to a dominant English view of American mass culture as a culture in which the sequel rules.
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