Archive for Hamlet

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #5b

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2022 by dcairns

OK, I’ll finally be finished with Branagh now.

The second appearance of Old king Hamlet in Kenneth Branagh’s looooooooong HAMLET has a few things I like in it. But is terrible. Let’s see if we can find out why!

I do not hate the intercutting of Hamlet in fast tracking shot with quick cuts of earthly eruptions — it’s kind of an illustration of the text, it creates a visceral excitement. It’s a forced, hammy excitement, in my view, but I can see how other people might dig it. Thrown into the Cuisinart are also quick shots of the big corpse lying in state and so on. Straight-up illustrating what the character’s talking about is the coward’s way out when it comes to Shakespearian cinema, but I will admit, we can follow what Hamlet is on about.

It’s not at all clear that Hamlet Jr. is following Hamlet Sr., or that he has any good reason to think he’s trotting in the right direction. But apparently he is.

Then there’s a spooky moment with Brian Blessed’s disembodied voice, heavily electronically treated, as Hamlet looks around an empty glade. Acceptable, except for the voice — given the setting, a more or less NORMAL voice that cannot be PLACED would be more authentically scary.

And then Branagh attempts a jump scare by having the ghost appear out of nowhere, grab Hamlet, and fling him into a tree. For no reason. It doesn’t make any sense.

The TV sketch show Spitting Image had a strange influence on the world — it may have actually influenced the UK public’s view of its politicians (sadly, not always in the way intended — and it also caused Greta Scacchi to refuse to go nude in THE PLAYER after they did a sketch pointing out how she was always naked, and suggesting (satirically — and quite untruthfully) that she insisted on this. Robert Altman was apparently pretty shitty about her refusal.

The show also spoofed Brian Blessed as an actor who likes shouting. They had writer John Mortimer, in puppet form, pitching a show where BB would play a very quiet man. “Who SHOUTS all the time? I love it!” roars the puppet Blessed. “No, no, he’s very soft-spoken!” “Then why is he always SHOUTING?”

I have a vague theory that either Branagh or Blessed saw this and thought it would be great to cast BB in something where he only whispers, to show his versatility. Unfortunately (1) Gielgud had beaten them to it and (b) Gielgud gains power by his whisper, he becomes more dominating, and Blessed loses power. Plus the fact that it’s a very enunciated, very loud STAGE whisper, and electronically treated, makes it rather silly. And one-note.

All the theatrics have nothing to do with psychology, or any credible notion of the supernatural and its rules within this story world. And I don’t know, but on a basic level a fat ghost feels wrong. (In the Olivier, the ghost is erect, straight up and down, but Hamlet’s father, in flashback, is a bit rolly-polly).

Brian Blessed for Player King. Charlton Heston as Ghost. There, fixed it.

We are being asked to believe that Julie Christie was married to Brian Blessed and then was won away by Derek Jacobi. These relationships raise a lot of questions the movie/play can’t answer. It’s probably quite helpful if Claudius is a good-looking guy, sexy, and maybe Hamlet Sr. is noble-looking but stern and not so sexy. Hamlet shows his mother miniature paintings of both men, trying to show to her what a bad choice she’s made. When Branagh does this with pictures of Blessed and Jacobi, it’s hilarious.

(The Zeffirelli pretty much nails this requirement.)

I don’t hate the Japanese ghost story trick of the light fading up on BB’s silhouetted face. Though I think that kind of thing works better if the scene is taking its time. I understand how, with a four hour text, they felt the need to rush everything — one more reason not to do the whole text.

Giving Brian contact lenses and ordering him not to blink makes his ghost rather… blank. Basically, all these restrictions turn the Ghost into a bore.

Random angle change! About time we had one of those. In fact, there were lots as Hamlet was haring through the woods, but they came as a cluster and you could call that a consistent stylistic approach. Here we’re in a shot / reverse shot dialogue scene and the abrupt profile at 1.39 is jarring a.f. It’s all about ENERGY!

More bubbling and seething ground, feels like the same footage we had before, now step-printed for some mysterious reason. This serves to distract attention away from the Ghost quoting Bertie Wooster, possibly a good thing. Actually, BB says “like quills upon the fretful porcupine,” instead of “porpentine,” which is what we have in Shakespeare’s text. I suppose this is OK. “He clearly MEANT to write porcupine,” says Branagh, rapping his knuckles against the playscript, whap! It could easily be a mistranscription. I favour cutting the line, it’s too amusing post-Wodehouse, and for those of us who know the text somewhat, correcting it is a distraction.

It may be that Branagh felt “I’m doing the WHOLE play” was a USP which alone justified doing this six years after Zeffirelli.

Brian’s “O list!” is just FUNNY. Which isn’t what we’re going for here.

When we get the big Rosebud mouth closeup on “murder” Branagh does something sort of interesting, I will admit — the repeated prosthetic shot of the ear, bulging and seeping as it reacts to the “leprous distillment” recently funnelled into it. The sound effect is interesting too — it’s basically redolent of a speed change, as if the editor is yanking the dial on his Steenbeck. I kind of like it, I think it could be used again in some other context, probably more effectively, but it’s an interesting notion.

Both Hamlet and dad get profile shots now. An ineffective, inexpressive, un-atmospeheric choice which diminishes the performances — perhaps no bad thing in Branagh’s case, but BB is playing this blind, stationary, whispering, and now his face is reduced to a hissing outline. Give the poor man something. Not too much! But something.

Now we get the flashback, the least effective part of the Olivier version, ported over and rendered preposterous by the film’s insistence on making everything Christmassy. Hamlet Sr. sleeps in his orchard, in the snow. OK, he has a fur rug and a fire and a pot of tea. But still, I do not believe it. Also, Shakespeare has him asleep so the poison can be poured into his ear — we have to imagine him lying on his side.

Branagh’s turn to be ridiculous, as he positively gibbers “Oh my prophetic soul,” a line that demands a certain simplicity (Just Say The Fucking Line is a good direction sometimes) so as not to sound fruity and overcooked. Branagh now cuts away to the uncle on the line “uncle”, which is just unforgivable. Zeffirelli does something similar, later, but at least the uncle is THERE in his version. Branagh is so anxious for us to understand, it’s rather pathetic. This turns into an entire flashback showing the Hamlet family enjoying a game of curling. Floor frisbees. Not indicated in the text. Mad.

“Brief let me be!” (4.28) Brian turns, I would have to say theatrically, from his profile shot to look right into the lens. Hysterical. Yes please, Brian, be brief, if you think you can manage it.

Wrong ear, Brian!

Brian’s death scene, played in fake slow motion. Awful. It isn’t any good in the Olivier, either. A fat guy falling out of his lawn chair is never going to be convincingly tragic. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in Elsinore’s Funniest Home Videos.

Among the many reasons this is ineffective is the sheer redundacy of having the story told in blank verse AND show in herky-jerky visuals. But Branagh needs to liven up his totally static exposition scene. Having the ghost walk — as he says he has been condemned to do — would be one way to keep the thing on its feet.

But even if Branagh had kept the scene developing visually by having the characters MOVE, his ghastly flashback are probably necessary because the scene is so damn long. But just showing you the exact thing Hamlet Sr. is saying isn’t a solution. It makes me nostalgic for the curling.

Surprisingly, Branagh chooses NOT to show the glow-worm paling his ineffectual fire, but he does helpfully put a cock-crow on the soundtrack. Visually, the ghost’s disappearance is decent, but Patrick Doyle’s score now comes syruping into the mix, giving everything a solemnity that seems to, I don’t know, FLATTER Hamlet and his vengeance quest. I don’t think you have to see the Prince as a psychopath, though he is definitely adolescent and shitty at times. But this emotion, here, seems utterly wrong.

Branagh has a tendency, in this role, to suggest extremes of grief by making his voice go UP into a sort of timorous squeak, and he does this on “O all you host of heaven!” (6.52) and it’s laugh-out-loud material.

Looking at what this production needs to make it work totally dismantles every salient feature of… this production. Branagh the actor needs a director. The director needs a better actor. The text needs cutting. The cast need swapping around. (In the whole huge crowd, the only one who seems like he could play Claudius is Don Warrington, who would be awesome. He has the nothing role of Voltimand.)

Branagh falling face down in the dry ice, in a Keatonesque flat wide, is pretty funny. Having him say “O earth!” TO the earth is, I guess, a reasonable choice, if a tad literal-minded (“literal” is this film’s keynote). Branagh now builds to a big slobbering climax lying on his gut, spitting into the fake snow. Again, Olivier had all this worked out — when Shakespeare’s text requires an actor to build to a big climax, the camera should move AWAY rather than, in the conventional way, IN. Because we do not which to see the character SPIT. Because a big performance is acceptable only from a certain distance. This was embarrassingly obvious in Branagh’s saliva-drenched HENRY V, and we already had the example of Olivier getting it right in HIS HENRY V and TELLING US ABOUT IT. This is Branagh’s THIRD Shakespeare film.

“My tables!” Branagh briefly gestures here — Hamlet wishes he had his tables on him, but doesn’t. I think that’s OK. You need to do something with the line, if you’re keeping it. I think having him take out his tables and write would be a good choice. That’s what the stage directions say, although we know Shakespeare didn’t write those. It seems plausible that “Writing” was put in there because that’s what the actor playing Hamlet did. When he says “So, Uncle, there you are,” this makes sense if he’s written “Uncle.” Branagh just looks confused when he says the line. As well he might.

Branagh kisses his sword — a swipe from Olivier. But that’s OK. Borrowings which work are a good thing. Better than the multiple ineffective choices, blunders and bad laughs we’ve had in the past few minutes.

Niche Interest

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on July 13, 2022 by dcairns

Really enjoyed seeing CALTIKI IL MOSTRO IMMORTALE on the Arrow Blu-ray. It comes with two excellent commentaries by Mario Bava experts Tim Lucas and Troy Howarth. Bava shot the film and did the special effects, and directed a big chunk of it also.

Unusually for a total B-picture, the film is so full of stuff that the commentaries can’t cover it all. Lucas tells us that director Riccardo Freda himself scultped the statue we see in the niche in the cave with the pool from which monster tripe-blob emerges.

So I became really interested in the wide shot, in which the camera tracks back and pans left as the protags descend the stairs into the cavern, and the statue is revealed. A miniature statue standing in a full-sized location.

It’s clear from the close-up that the statue is quite small, just like the bronze Brian Blessed at the start of Branagh’s HAMLET (a lesser film than CALTIKI): if it were as big as it appears, its surroundings would be better focused. For all his wizardry, Bava wasn’t always able to solve this issue — I regard with affection the heroes’ spaceship in PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, bits of which are nearly always out of focus, proving that it’s a tiny model.

The way to do this usually is to suspend the miniature in front of the lens, close to it. If everything is successfully in focus, the miniature can be made to appear as if it’s enormous, sitting in the background, instead of small and hanging in the foreground.

You can even pan, since the foreground miniature (or glass painting) will move through frame at the same rate as the background.

The complication here is that the camera is also dollying backwards, but they try to time it so that the camera’s motion is over just as the statue comes into view.

And they don’t quite manage it, with the result that the statue appears to float backwards into its niche just as it appears — oh just the tiniest smidge. The conviction added by the camera movement is well worth the slight flaw of the statue’s drift. Guaranteed most viewers assume the statue is life-sized.

Two more thoughts — the serpent and skull cutaway suggests that Freda or Bava or one or writer Filippo Sanjust may have seen THE BLUE LAGOON, the film that terrified a young David Cronenberg with its image of a skull rising up on the end of a snake; and I believe Lucas, whose exhaustive analysis of the film’s beautiful glass shots is fascinating, may be wrong in assuming the volcano effect, made using a fish tank, must have been shot upside-down. It MAY have been. But the “lava” squirts up from below, then descends in your basic DEATHLY PALL, which would also be consistent with the fluid (Lucas suggests a lead suspension, but ordinary paint and milk seem possible) being pumped upwards from below and then curling down when it hits (offscreen) the top of the water. I think this is likelier because it’s simpler. While one way to pull off a trick is to put more effort into it than anyone would think likely, Bava special effects are often distinguished by simplicity and boldness combined with tremendous skill and imagination. Such may be the case here.

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #5a

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2022 by dcairns

Back to the Branagh. You love to see it.

Branagh once said he’d be unlikely to make a Macbeth, because Polanski’s was pretty fine. So I guess he was indifferent to the Olivier and Richardson versions, though as we’ll see he’s certainly seen them, and I guess he was super-indifferent to the Zeffirelli which was only six years old.

The four hours gets off to a rocky start, I can tell you: the title is chiselled in stone as part of the set. This struck me as cheesy — maybe I was being dense not to realise that it’s the inscription on the plinth of Hamlet’s dad’s statue. But Branagh could have made that clear by tracking back from the plinth to reveal the statue (CITIZEN KANE style) rather than tracking to one side which causes the sign to slide off screen right in a “nothing to see here” manner. You don’t expect to encounter it again.

I guess if Jack Lemmon had come to me and said “I want to play a spear-carrier in your four-hour HAMLET,” at first I would have probably said, “You are mistaken, I’m not making a four-hour HAMLET,” but then I might have been flattered into letting him do it. But this is plainly the kind of top-heavy casting where you notice the actor at the expense of the role. Classic John Wayne “Surely this man was the son of God.” Can you do it with more awe?

Jack Lemmon is a beloved American actor. But quite poor here. He’s elderly, it’s late at night, it’s cold, and it’s an unfamiliar idiom — that must be why he’s slipping into the cadences of Jimmy Cagney playing Bottom playing Pyramus — textbook school play robotic speech. Disconcerting and saddening.

Since Branagh is doing what a lot of stage productions do, setting his production in A period but not THE period (admittedly, one could make a case for either medieval or Elizabethan), we have to get used to quite a lot, so I suppose it’s good to have our first Black actor in this scene, Ray Fearon as Francisco. Establish the principle. But it’s rubbish the way the Black actors only play spear-carriers.

This is a scene with quite a few terrified blokes reacting to a ghost. The only important one is Horatio. And Branagh’s casting makes sure we notice Horatio less than Marcellus and Francisco.

Barnardo patrols by the gate. He looks about as he walks. Some panning shots attempt to simulate his POV though they’re taken from a stationary position.

Suddenly we’re very far away and here’s the statue of Hamlet Sr. It looks like it must be quite small (somehow you can tell with statues). Some very clumsy cutting follows, between Barnardo getting worried and a jib shot exploring the statue for reasons we cannot yet guess. None of this works, I think it’s fair to say. Then the statue draws its sword just a wee bit and —

CREAK! Blimey, the statue of Hamlet’s father is coming to life, like Talos, one thing that absolutely none of the characters say they see. That’s one of the main traits of this wordy version — things happening which in no way match what the characters say. Seems to me, if you’re doing the whole text you’d better read it and make sure you understand it.

But really what counts here most is the random angle changes. That’s what Branagh is all about — along with the meaninglessly whirling camera, the random cut to a surprising new angle is his calling card. When I see that calling card I always reply, “Mr. Cairns is not at home.”

When so many of the choices seem chosen from a tombola, it’s good to remember that Branagh is animated by some actual stylistic preferences — he likes pace and energy. So do I. But how far can you take them? Can you have Francisco tackle Barnardo roughly to the snowy ground (so what if the play clearly isn’t happening in winter? cf Ophelia’s flowers) and still have Barnardo say to him “You come most carefully upon your hour,” while the dude is lying on his back? What if he yells it? What if everybody yells, even though it’s night and the royal family probably doesn’t want blokes yelling right outside?

The two men now get up and stand unnaturally close together despite the wide (65mm!) screen, and neither makes a move despite Bernardo having been relieved and pronouncing himself really keen to get going. This is the first shot that makes it clear that they’re NOT, in fact, right next to Blenheim Palace which is standing in for Elsinore. The gate is some distance from the building. Maybe the shouting is OK, then, but it didn’t seem OK when it was happening.

Then they start power-walking at a diagonal away from the gate, towards fuck all, but luckily this brings Marcellus and Horatio into view. Our guys immediately jump and yell and point their spears. Energy!

It’s fine to have Americans do Shakespeare, it’s fine to have them do it with American accents, but “random” is never a good strategy and having one random yank spear-carrier is distracting. And Marcellus also seems a bit old for his job. A good chunk of this scene is “Is that Jack Lemmon?” and “That IS Jack Lemmon!” and “WHY is that Jack Lemmon?” I think the only way this would have worked would be if Francisco was Walter Matthau. I jest. Sadly, Branagh is in earnest.

Note the clumsy way, when they decide to go and sit by the fire, we get a special shot of JL exiting frame. That’s it. The characters are moving from one static position to another and we need a cutaway of Lemmon taking one step to help us get there. Because energy!!!

Once the three guys (Barnardo having headed for home and Horlicks) sit down, we could settle for a flat free but some atmosphere seems called for, so we’re given a genuinely nice shot of Francisco up close with his chums blurry in the b/g, which works well. So it doesn’t last long. Still, I approve of the VFX shot of the star Barnardo speaks of. I don’t approve of going back to the flat three-shot when they react to the ghost for the first time. Never repeat a master shot — words to live by, if you can.

Patrick Doyle’s music now gets very excited as —

  1. we go BACK to the side shot favouring Barnardo that we just left and
  2. we track in low angle on the ghost / statue — impossible to place where it is with regards to our character and
  3. a crane shot plummeting towards the ground as the three amigos push through the gates
  4. tracking shot rushing right to left as B, F & H flee PARALLEL TO THE HOUSE, which you might think they’d try to reach and
  5. cut into a closer view of the same (ENERGY!) and then back again and
  6. a long lens static rear view of them now running towards the house somehow and
  7. a blurry rush of motion with a brief bit of Jack Lemmon in it, maybe talking and
  8. another crane shot descending, as the boys hide behind a bit of wall and
  9. three big scared heads in a row and
  10. side view medium shot, halberds at the ready and then back to 9, then 10, then 9 and
  11. another shot of the ghost with no context and
  12. the crane shot of the wee wall again, but this time retreating and then 9 again and then more of this and
  13. the ghost/statue but now we’re tracking away from it, symbolizing that it’s going away

Whew! Eighteen shots in 35 seconds (average shot less than two seconds). ENERGY!!! And such a RANGE of shots. Big shots, small shots, some as big as your head. And absolutely impossible to work out why THESE shots. I mean, we can justify the ghost appearing. We can justify shots looking at the people who are speaking. The crane shots seem to be intended to suggest the ghost’s POV (as in EVIL DEAD) but they don’t seem to match where we assume it to be, and the actors don’t look in the right direction, so they add to the general confusion.

The Cuisinart approach to cutting has deleterious effects all round — that long lens static rear view, however short you hold it onscreen, cannot add to the “energy” because it’s so undramatic — it’s wide, static, flat, and filmed from the rear — it’s eating up time that could be taken by one of the tracking shots, but I suppose it’s needed because it’s the only shot showing the characters running in a sensible direction.

Shakespeare doesn’t have his characters run away, but this is acceptable. Closing the gate on it is an issue, though, because we’re never shown what the ghost does in response to this. It keeps coming, apparently, but we’re not shown HOW. I don’t think we really WANT a visual effect of it passing through the gate, but the way things are shown it’s kind of needed.

The big big problem is the lack of connection between the ghost and the peeps. They never share a frame, which is already a problem (this COULD be used expressively to make the ghost’s reality open to question, and insofar as the sequence is animated by an idea, I think this may have been KB’s intent). The lack of a clear POV/reaction structure renders it all incoherent and unconvincing. The shots of men looking don’t clearly connect to the shots of the ghost. The “possible ghost POV shots” don’t connect to the movements of the ghost we see. It’s like everything else: some decent, sometimes bold shot ideas in search of a sequence.

This frenetic montage starts two and a half minutes into the film, which is, as I may have mentioned, some four hours long. It constitutes a pretty good warning that our director is flying blind without a space helmet.

But there’s more to come!