Archive for January, 2022

Papier Machebeth

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2022 by dcairns

Continuing our MACBETH investigations, we turn to the Welles, which Polanski, a great Welles fan, felt it was safe to disregard completely. A minor work. Well, yes, but even minor Welles shouldn’t be disregarded.

Incredible that this was shot in three weeks, first of all. Whether you think it works at all is one thing, but the achievement is something else. There are films that work brilliantly with a strictly-from-poverty aesthetic, like Ulmer’s DETOUR, where all the creative decisions are also economical ones, but they’re STRONG decisions. MACBETH isn’t like that: though the monotextured sets — everything seems to be made of still-damp papier mache, and the truly unwearable costumes, speak eloquently of a bottom line that’s bottomed out, the mise en scene and range and number of set-ups have nothing to do with low-budget cinema, and would compare favourably with many an A picture.

IMDb credits art director Fred A. Ritter and Welles himself with those costumes. Ritter never ran that department on any other film, according to the same source. So it was Welles’ own choice to spend much of the film with a tiny occasional table turned upside down and crammed onto his skull. It probably looked OK as a drawing. It’s a huge relief when he trades it for the BDSM Lady Liberty tiara. Fiona thought the baubles on his jerkin (right) made him look like a Dalek. The feeling is FLASH GORDON movie serial, a feeling augmented at times by sets and costumes and playing. Like they designed a few things, badly, and then grabbed everything in stock that was vaguely relatable to the subject — Genghis Khan flicks, caveman movies, Viking epics, and some anachronistic bits of plaid — Duncan wears a big picnic blanket, Macbeth has a tartan scarf draped over his head like a shawl.

The sets are cheaply constructed but are still impressive — how did they achieve THIS on a micro-budget? There’s an argument that you could get away with a lot less in the way of set design — black voids and smoke and boulders have been pressed into service before — but you can’t get away with ridiculous clothes, because they’re ON the actors, who are the thing we’re always meant to be looking at.

Welles’ decision to pre-record all the dialogue and lipsynch to it, as if in a musical, seems kind of crazy, but it apparently achieved its goal of allowing more set-ups to be shot: the extra effort that went into the actors learning not just their lines but their precise delivery was absorbed by the cast outside of working hours, allowing the shoot to move faster. It definitely wouldn’t be my choice, but what the hell.

The further decision to get William “Thompson” Alland to drill everyone in a fake Scottish accent doesn’t come off too badly. It smacks slightly of Groundkeeper Willie, that accent, but as Fiona said, “I’ve definitely heard worse.” And it makes sense for the characters to have Scottish accents, even if it doesn’t make sense for them to talk in blank verse. It comes back to the question of how much realism is the right amount for a film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth? I would argue that NO realism is the right amount, so the look of this film, all dry ice and backcloths, is fine. The only realism that should be admitted is the psychological kind, so that it doesn’t make sense for Jeanette Nolan’s Lady M to SCREAM at her husband while they’re trying to carry out a secret midnight assassination.

“She’s my least favourite Lady Macbeth,” said Fiona, following this with “Hurry up and die,” during the mad scene. Harsh. I think she was alright, but doubling down on Lady Mac’s harsher aspects is typical of Welles’ occasionally simplistic reading of Shakespeare’s characters. (It takes an effort to avoid seeing Iago as fundamentally A SNEAKY GUY: but surely he can’t be as furtive and implausible as Micheál MacLiammóir in Welles’ OTHELLO? Nobody would fall for his tricks, not with that moustache.)

Welles’ interps are better when they’re weird and idiosyncratic: his judgement that Macbeth is a mediocrity UNTIL, trapped by fate, he resolves to fight on to the last, gives him one really good speech, the moment when his performance comes to life: even playing outright villains, Welles seems to have needed to find something admirable or pitiable in the men he portrayed: Hank Quinlan is an injured lion, Harry Lime is charming, Kane just wants to be loved.

Of the other players, Alan Napier (playing a part invented for the movie, “a holy man,” given most of Ross’s lines plus some from other characters) has the best version of the accent, Roddy McDowall has the worst (though I liked his dreamy delivery, and making Malcolm a kid is a nice idea — Roddy was twenty but seems younger) and Welles’ daughter Michael has none at all. Dan O’Herlihy is a great Macduff — “terrifying,” as Fiona put it, maybe because HE’S SO INTO IT.

Welles’ reusing the set design from his voodoo Macbeth was a good idea, must have saved time on blocking; the ten-minute take that surrounds the regicide was a bold one; there are longish passages where the camera just looks at twigs or smoke while some soliloquy is going on: maybe this doesn’t quite come off, but it’s where the film seems most avant grade, ambitious and ballsy. Or bloody, bold and resolute if you prefer.

As he did in KANE, Welles recycles his meagre cast, making the same actors play front-and-centre figures and silhouettes (the witches are never clearly seen; are the best characters from a visual standpoint as a direct result). The dagger scene incorporates startling rack-focus effects, reminiscent of the start of the crazy house sequence in LADY FROM SHANGHAI. The banquet is really scary — Banquo’s spectre is simple but effective, suitably bloody, and occupying a frame from which all the supporting cast has vanished. The dead walk not in the spaces we walk in, but in the spaces between.

(In the Polanski, brilliantly, all the diners freeze into a tableau vivant with only the principals animate.)

And the climax, once we’re at Dunsinane, is terrific. The movie has a great opening and a great ending. Lady M’s death plunge has never looked more dramatic: she seems to be falling from the stratosphere. A floppy dummy, admittedly, but Welles racks focus to nowhere just before that becomes distracting. As the English army invade, the optical zooms Welles has slapped on everything create a propulsive energy. He’s actually invented a whole new technique here, zoom upon zoom, which could look impressive in a modern film.

Hard to escape the suspicion that Welles’ ambulatory forest, step-printed into eerie slomo, inspired Kurosawa’s depiction in THRONE OF BLOOD.

Where Welles’ Macbeth connects to Coen’s is chiefly in the idea of an interior film, shot entirely (a) in the studio and (b) in Macbeth’s head. Though both versions include scenes without Mac, and we’re not in the realms of Welles’ planned HEART OF DARKNESS, shooting everything subjective camera, there’s still a strong sense of this 1:1.33 grey box we call the world being compassed within the hero’s mind. Maybe that’s why Orson wears a square crown.

MACBETH stars Hank Quinlan; Bertha Duncan; Robinson Crusoe; Caesar; Dr. Karol Noymann; Alfred the butler; Roger Bronson; Morgan Ryker; Thompson; Goldie; and Rock Person.

Return to Dunsinane

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2022 by dcairns

Fiona wanted to do a direct comparison between Joel Coen’s and Roman Polanski’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, so we ran the Criterion Blu of the latter, and my opinion of it rose considerably. (The picture upgrade on that disc, over the DVD my frame-grabs are from, is massive: Gilbert Taylor, who had previously shot REPULSION, was one of Polanski’s finest collaborators.)

The Coen film is a rather compelling blend of film and theatre — everything it does with its visual approach seems to me just right, building on Olivier’s Shakespeare films and Welles and Kurosawa. It does take some textual hints from Polanski and Tynan’s adaptation, building on the idea of Ross as a schemer and traitor to both sides, something not specified in Shakespeare but which makes sense and allows him to grow from a Basil Exposition kind of attendant lord into a proper dimensional character.

Polanski does something very literal, very blunt — he decides to make Dark Age Scotland as visceral and real as he can. Olivier had considered doing this for HENRY V but worried that the audience would say, “Okay, so that’s a tree and that’s a house and that’s a horse… why is everyone talking so funny?” Polanski’s Horrible Histories visualisation begs that question very urgently indeed, and also creates unnecessary problems out of the asides and soliloquies. Can Macbeth talk to the camera/audience, and if not, what does he do instead.

In fact, we see in ALFIE that an actor can do asides in an otherwise naturalistic film, and it’s a device I’d like to see tried more. (It would have been an absolutely natural thing to try in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, frinstance) Polanski has Jon Finch sometimes do quite long internal monologues, making faces to try to match his dubbed-on thoughts, something I never find satisfying or engaging. More successful, because more playful, are the segues from this device into spoken monologue, the character talking to himself like John McClane in DIE HARD (another besieged warrior with marital troubles). Polanski is always keen to credit Olivier as an influence, so I suspect this is borrowed from the similar tricks in HAMLET. But why Polanski didn’t consider using some of that film’s stripped-down theatricality I don’t know. I guess he’s just more of a realist, and not a man of the theatre like Sir Larry.

But rewatching a film is great for seeing past the things that bother you on a first viewing. Polanski’s whole aesthetic may be sort of counter-productive to doing Shakespeare, but he goes at it very enthusiastically indeed, and if the grit and sharpness are an odd fit for the iambic pentameters, they’re surprisingly close to the sharp focus of outright hallucination — Polanski seems to be using his 60s experience of LSD to give us freak-out visions that render Macbeth’s experiences, particularly with the witches, horrifyingly up-close and alarming.

And the casting of young actors, which was absurdly controversial at the time, seems like a no-brainer now. Older actors have more experience of both life and acting and can often do more than the photogenic youngsters. But what they can’t do is BE YOUNG. I think a middle-aged Macbeth could work if you play him as desperately grabbing what seems like his last chance at success, but the whole question of his wanting an heir becomes academic, an anaemic character motivation, if he has a menopausal wife.

I found myself liking Jon Finch’s performance, bad wig aside, more than before. He’s a star who should have been huge, but his biggest roles, this and FRENZY, didn’t do him the most justice, I always felt. His perf in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, on the other hand, MY GOD that is a star turn. But now I think I was too harsh on his Macbeth: there didn’t seem a single point where he didn’t have exactly the right take on the text.

Francesca Annis is also terrific: she seems readily able to seduce Macbeth into his crimes, as opposed to Frances McDormand’s Lady M who essentially bullies her husband forward. The text tells us she has nursed a baby but has no children now, but there seems no reason why she couldn’t be expected to have more kids and so Macbeth can realistically desire to see his children inherit the throne from him.

Annis looks not much like Sharon Tate but I found myself reminded of her a good deal, maybe because I recently saw Tate standing on a castle tower in EYE OF THE DEVIL.

What everyone used to talk about is the violence, which there is a lot of. It’s very matter-of-fact. The men barely react to someone being hanged or bludgeoned to death in front of them, and for the women and kids there’s always bear-baiting. The play is certainly full of mayhem but Shakespeare’s attitude to it is probably a little different — in Shakespearean tragedy, the normal order of things typically goes awry, and you get fathers against sons, eye-gougings, and so on. At the end, typically order is restored and everyone left alive is happy. A bit sad about all the mayhem but happy it’s over. Shakespeare’s politics are roughly speaking conservative — well, he had a monarch to please. Macbeth seems to have been intended to appeal to King James, who was a big believer in witches — a bunch of women in Scotland had just been tortured and killed for supposedly cursing him. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to Shakespeare than his politics.

Well, Polanski seems to see the order of things as continuous violence and chaos, which, given his life experiences is understandable (everyone thinks of the Manson killings here, but the Holocaust is at least as important, and though RP has denied that the film was his direct response to his wife’s death, he’s admitted that the behaviour of Macbeth’s henchman when entering the Macduff family home was based on that of an SS officer he witnessed in occupied Poland. So Duncan’s reign is unspeakably violent and horrible, Macbeth’s is maybe slightly worse, then he’s killed and it looks like the witches are going to recruit another patsy so the cycle of carnage can continue. Joel Coen steals that idea outright for his new film. It’s very modern and very unshakespearean, but like I say, Shakespeare’s politics are kind of his least appealing aspect.

(The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through (The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through and seen, none of them have the heart to really take stock of the situation, which seems somehow apocalyptic.)

I’ve written elsewhere about how Polanski films have a tendency to arc back to their own beginnings, swallowing their tails — from TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE through REPULSION, CUL DE SAC, FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, PIRATES. Even if they don’t literally end in the spot they began at, or near it, often the ending is a call-back in some way — CHINATOWN begins with its main title, and ends in Chinatown. It’s a rather despairing vision of the world, where we always end up back where we started only substantially the worse for wear.

Polanski and his co-adaptor, Kenneth Tynan, have not only moved Macbeth’s decapitation from discretely offstage to graphically onscreen, an almost essential change which nearly every filmmaker has followed, varying only in their explicitness, he’s chopped all the summing-up by the survivors which reassures the play’s audience that the line of kings will now continue in a legitimate way. Most other movie adaptations follow the same pattern, based on a reading of the play’s TRUE subject as Macbeth himself, not the crown of Scotland. When he’s dead, it’s mostly over.

One of Polanski’s most brilliant and alarming touches is the aftermath of Finch’s lopping, with his head whooshing about on the end of a pike, and handheld shots that COULD be his point of view, as if consciousness has not quite fled and he has a chance to take in, in a wobbly sort of way, the scene of his death.

At times, the film’s visual ideas clash with the playscript — when the witches say “Hover through the fog and filthy air, before they exeunt, it’s pretty clear Shakespeare’s suggesting they’re flying, as witches are said to do. Here, they just say it, and don’t even waddle off: it seems to be just something witches like saying. (The Coen film has no broomsticks, but strongly implies that the witch/es can turn into crows.) And the fights are terrifically staged by the great Bill Hobbs, but I don’t quite get why Banquo’s injuries should be so different from what the murderers’ describe in their report to Macbeth. Interestingly, when he sees visions of Banquo, some of them accurately show the axe in the back which he has no way of knowing about. But witchcraft can do that.

Deft little additions make Lady M’s swift descent into madness almost TOO gradual. I chatted with Angela Allen, the film’s script supervisor, who spoke somewhat sceptically about Polanski’s temper tantrums and karate chops (he’d had lessons from Bruce Lee and could snap great beams with the edge of his little hand), and while she was full of praise for Annis, she felt Finch knew the performance he WANTED to give, but perhaps couldn’t quite reach. But he’s physical, brooding, handsome, and he can speak the verse. And he probably gets over more of the character’s slow corruption than the other big movie Macs. “Macbeth is a play about the slow decay of the moral sense,” says Ltnt Kinderman in EXORCIST III. But he practically starts off with regicide, regarded as the worst crime possible in Shakespeare’s day. Say rather it’s about guilt, which destroys Lady Macbeth’s sanity and turns her husband, progressively, into a monster. Because one way of dealing with guilt is to deny it, to keep doing the stuff that makes you feel guilty, trying to prove that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not a GOOD way of dealing with it, but it’s quite popular.

Polanski faithfully stages the spectre at the banquet just as the text suggests (Macbeth doesn’t sit because there’s somebody in his chair, but nobody else can see this person…), only adding some weird special effects so that the ghost is differently horrible each time we see it. And our view of it is tied to Macbeth’s — it’s only seen in his POV shots.

(Important to keep things straight — Banquo’s ghost is a manifestation of Macbeth’s guilt, which he’s not emotionally smart enough to process. In the Coen film, the ghost is associated with crows, and this with the witches. This is quite, QUITE wrong.)

Best of all, perhaps, is the witches’ sabbat, a Goyaesque bad trip. The mirrors within mirrors, a giddy fast-motion rush of shots spliced together with artful opticals, perfectly visualises Macbeth’s cry of “Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?”

I’m glad I got over my feeling that Polanski went at this the wrong way. I still think he did, but he went at it so aggressively he basically made it work.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Jerry Cornelius; Lady Jessica; Judge John Deed; The Bloody Barron; Keats; Adolph Bolm; King Vishtaspa; Engywook; Mr. Tupper; Book Person: Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (uncredited); and Robin Hood Junior.

Grey Box

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2022 by dcairns

Really enjoyed Joel Coen’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH. By some special dispensation it’s called that. Polanski’s film, according to its main title, is also called THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, IIRC, but it’s only ever called MACBETH. So I guess that helps us keep our Scottish usurpers sorted out.

What the Coen film has is a really good look (and sound). It finds a balance between the theatrical and the cinematic, a necessary thing for this sort of subject, I think. It goes further towards theatre than either the Welles or the Kurosawa (I don’t entirely consider THRONE OF BLOOD a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth so much as a version of the story — if you don’t grapple with the dialogue, you’re not actually filming Shakespeare). What really helps it, I think, is the framing, in that round-cornered 1:1.33 box — the way characters talk almost right into the lens when they’re addressing someone out of frame, it makes everything ALMOST a soliloquy. The POV shots travelling very straight towards a geometric vanishing point — the influence of Hitchcock, apparently, though I kept thinking of the terrifying tracking towards the execution posts in Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY.

Performances are strong. Stephen Root can’t quite make the Porter seem other than a mentally-ill intruder from another cinematic universe, like the brawling cowboy’s bursting onto Buddy Bizarre’s musical set in BLAZING SADDLES, but that’s at least partly the playwright’s fault. There’s really outstanding work from Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel, Moses Ingram, Miles Anderson… Kathryn Hunter as all three witches is simply uncanny: an unholy trinity, a three-in-one contortionist Gollum.

I do have quibbles. Could have done with less CGI — the CGI I liked was the stuff I couldn’t be sure was CGI. I think there’s imperfect chemistry between Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Each is separately very good. But I have questions. Why does Macbeth want to be king? I get that his wife wants it, I totally believed that. Washington plays the man’s doubts well, but the excitement that the throne may be destined to his… well, it’s a very laid-back performance, which is refreshing in its way. Though he does sudden shouting, too, which everyone seems to need to do when they act Shakespeare.

Once he is king, the motivation should be easy: he has to kill all his enemies to stay alive, or so he believes. But Macbeth fretting over the fact that Banquo’s son will become king, and not his, would make more sense if there were any prospect of the Macbeths producing an heir of their own. It’s one thing you never question in the Polanski or Welles.

McDormand has to contend with The Missing Scene. Dame Edith Evans claimed Lady Mac was an unplayable role, because she disintegrates so rapidly — the sleepwalking sign is the first sign of weakness, and “she was perfectly fine at supper.” Evans phrase became even funnier to me when I realised that Lady M actually SAYS she’s “perfectly fine.”

Just read a great piece by Daniel A. Amnéus speculating that there’s textual evidence of just such a scene. In brief, he examines the Macbeths’ exchange here —

SHE: Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done is done.

HE: We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it:
She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.

— and finds they make more sense as a consideration of Banquo’s murder and Fleance’s escape — which haven’t happened yet at this point in the play — than they do as a discussion of Duncan’s assassination. (He suggests that Lady M wouldn’t speak of the regicide as being without remedy, since she still regards it as “her greatest triumph.”

Coen and McDormand come up with a bit of business — Lady Macbeth suddenly starting to lose her hair — to try to foreshadow her sudden disintegration. This strikes me as both too much and not enough. Given the cinema’s ability, and right, and indeed requirement, to invent visual material, I think more could have been done. You can suggest that Lady Macbeth is not as perfectly fine as she claims. (This is quite well handled in the Polanski.)

There are some terrific inventions in this movie — Macbeth’s second visit to the witches is played as a dream — there’s nearly always a dream in a Coen Bros film (they even deleted one from FARGO, and one from THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE involving flying saucers) — and it’s tremendous. I don’t think the spectre at the banquet scene is reimagined as well as it might be. For one thing, inserting the raven, symbol in this film of the weird sisters, seems to imply that Banquo’s ghost is a production of sorcery, rather than Macbeth’s guilty conscience, a blurring of what I take to the play’s meaning. Playing the whole thing at a run, abandoning the banquet table, robs the scene of much of its awful, mortifying social dimension — a dimension that would allow McDormand, playing party hostess, to show more strain. Francesca Annis’ Lady M doesn’t suffer much from missing scene syndrome in the Polanski; Fraces McDormand’s much tougher interpretation of the part has a wider emotional gulf to traverse to get to the sleepwalking scene, and the tuft of shed hair, unconnected to anything else that happens, doesn’t get her there.

But my quibbles aside, I really dug this — I think the semi-theatrical look is achieved even better here than in Olivier (the stripped-down sets of his HAMLET seem like an unacknowledged influence). Because of the camera’s role. And the theatrical look is definitely a better choice than Polanski’s hyperrealism, though his approach does make his film an easy distance from the hallucinatory, a distance crossed when Jon Finch visits the witches for the second time.

Joel without Ethan seems to have moved into a more extreme stylisation, returning to the expressionistic and eclectic manner of his earliest work — this may all be due to the source material he’s tackling, but it’s an interesting direction regardless. And the trademark Coen snark is gone: he’s said he regards the Macbeths as sympathetic characters, asides from being murderers. OK, that very statement may contain some trace of snark. But I think he means it, also.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Malcolm X; Marge Gunderson; Translucent; Jonathan Strange; Stobrod Thewes; Dudley Dursley; Poseidon; Lt. Nystrom; Jolene; Mrs. Arabella Figg;

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Malcolm X; Marge Gunderson; Translucent; Jonathan Strange; Stobrod Thewes; Dudley Dursley; and Mrs. Arabella Figg.