Archive for Nicol Williamson

The Death of the Arthur: Wilde and Crazy Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2023 by dcairns

Blame the original Arthurian legends — a bunch of unrelated and mainly Welsh bits of history and legend that got gradually balled up together — for the aberrant spellings. But maybe blame TH White for repopularizing the aberrations just when things were settling down. By the 50s, everyone “knew” how to spell Merlin, so White made it Merlyn and somehow added a veneer of historical authenticity to his books, which otherwise rejoice in whimsical anachronism. The authenticity — White is very learned about everything from castle construction to falconry — makes the whimsy possible.

Anyway, here’s “Modred” in Cornel Wilde’s SWORD OF LANCELOT, monologuing to his tiny shoulder-pal. Is it technically a monologue if he’s talking TO someone, even if that someone is an intense-faced feathered shrimp perched on his anatomy? It definitely is.

“Modred” is imagined along the lines of Edmund in King Lear, an illegitimate son conspiring against a legit competitor, though here his rival is as yet only a gleam in Arthur’s eye. Having him here to plot helps push the guilt away from Lancelot and Guinivere, though how successful this will be as narrative poly remains to be seen.

“Modred” is played by Michael Meacham, who gets the kiss-of-death credit “And Introducing,” despite the fact that he’d been appearing on TV since 1952. He’s as close to the end of his screen career as to the beginning. Meacham voiced the role of Demetrius in the English dub of Jiri Trnka’s puppet version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, long with pretigious types like Richard Burton, so I assume he had Shakespearian experience. Modred is conceived in villainous terms, but he doesn’t have Edmund’s depth or dialogue.

Anyway, Modred has hired an entire army of brigands — decidedly un-merrie men — to kill Guinevere, and Wilde delivers a nice atmospheric tracking shot across their latex-scarred faces lurking in the greenwood. So, just like in THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD, we’re kind of grafting Robin Hood imagery into Arthuriana, but because the Arthur myth is authoritarian or arthuritarian, the outlaw-bandits have to be bad guys. It’s fine — you can do this, just as you can give Arthur a jester — it all fits in with the movie idea of medieval times, even if the legends go back to the Dark Ages.

After knocking the bandits for six — Guinivere lends a hand at the head-cleaving — the party arrives at the big village set. Camelot itself is a matte painting or photo pasted into the top right corner, a good distance off. As TH White explains early on in The Sword in the Stone, a village/town/city was always just outside the protective castle, and if a serious attack took place everyone just moved into the castle walls. Citadel as mini-city. Putting them this far apart serves no purpose. I get to see this principle inaction every time I take the bus into Edinburgh city centre: the High Street, the city’s first thoroughfare, descends the slope from the Castle Rock, the only avenue from which the Castle can be approached. Easy to beat a retreat inside and slam the gates, and you only have one side to defend. Unfortunately, not everyone has a bit of extinct volcano to build on.

Lancelot reassures the nervous king that G is eager to be his queen. Which he knows isn’t true as L&G have already fallen for each other. There’s that very striking line of Merlin’s in EXCALIBUR: “When a man lies he kills a part of the world.” A good line, it always made me feel that chivalric honour was an alien concept from another age — Is that true? I thought. It doesn’t FEEL true. But it’s striking.

Mark Dignam’s Merlin gets to present G to A. His is a thankless task in this film — if he can’t have any magic, what’s he good for? He knows about soap, this is the extent of his power. TH White’s Merlin seems to have almost unlimited power, but he has scruples that tell him when it’s appropriate to wizard things up. Boorman’s Merlin, as played by Nicol Williamson, breaks his own rules, which seem to establish the seeds of Camelot’s fall before it’s even begun. I think the best use of magic in fiction makes it clear that this shit is dangerous, to your health or your soul. But it’s better to HAVE magic in a mythic tale than NOT have it, surely? Do we want to have fun or don’t we? I was upset about TROY leaving out the gods, which are central to Homer, even if they’re very hard to render onscreen without cheesiness obtruding.

Per IMDb, filming on this was divided between Pinewood and Divčibare, Yugoslavia. There are some good castles in Serbia, for sure, but nothing I’ve seen so far looks like you’d have to leave the UK to find it. There’s a huge church interior for the wedding that somehow looks like a sound stage (overlit) but surely can’t be. Our cameraman is Harry Waxman, famed for THE THIRD MAN, although he probably only shot two-thirds of it, He hasn’t done anything atmospheric with light so far.

The script makes much of Guinevere’s youth, which is a little hard on Jean Wallace, who’s been in movies for more than twenty years. Medieval brides were often what we’d consider children, but you can have a forty-year-old Guinevere if you don’t keep insisting she’s a youngster. Of if you start the story later. I respect Wilde for sticking with his Mrs. though.

Hmm, the church is also the throne room and banquet hall and I guess they slide the two bits of round table, with its refectory chairs, in and out as needed, so it makes more sense that they might build it at Pinewood. Art director Maurice Carter also did BECKETT, and bits of those sets got recycled in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, probably to better effect. And THESE sets supposedly got turned into Grand Fenwick in THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, Richard Lester’s unmemorable second film. I must do a comparison… (Lester’s challenge was to make the big sets look pokey and cheap, as befits the world’s smallest duchy. Later, he would turn down the chance to use Anthony Mann’s ROMAN EMPIRE sets for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.)

Good news — Adrienne Corri is Lady Vivian, Modred’s romantic interest. Her characteristic red hair (Corri was Scots-Italian) dyed black, she brings a touch of lustiness.

Then Lancelot has to go off and battle an army of Viking invaders. Again, I see no reason why you can’t have Vikings, since it’s never been really clear when Arthur’s story is meant to be set. And of course your movie Vikings should and must have horns on their helmets, even though horns is the one thing Vikings never wore. The battle is large, impressively mounted I guess, but somehow not ACTUALLY impressive. Editor Thom Noble would go on to cut FAHRENHEIT 451 and WITNESS. It just doesn’t get near the visceral feel of Kurosawa. But at least we don’t have extras catching spears with their hands and stomachs like in ZULU. The arrow hits are achieved by straight cutting: archer goes twang! — victim has an arrow in him and falls over. THRONE OF BLOOD has not been studied. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT has not yet been made, to teach the lesson: get off the tripod, allow a little shake. It’s all expensively adequate.

But the shock cut from the full din of battle to a corpse lying in red muddy water is VERY strong. I tip my visor to Wilde once more. The water eats away at the man’s outline, making him look dismembered, and the contrast from LOUD to QUIET is even more striking than doing it the other way around might be. It forces the audience to catch its breath — each one of us becomes afraid of drawing ridicule with a sudden embarrassing noise.

It’s not certain that this sequence has any effect on any other part of the film’s story, however.

I should be able to finish the film in one more blog post. Sorry this is taking so long.

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #3 & #4

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2022 by dcairns

The Kozontzev HAMLET is grand and the ghost is particularly fine. If you want a spectacular, epic vision of the ghost, you couldn’t really do better. Something about the particular tone of this movie isn’t quite up my alley but I have no end of admiration for the showmanship here. Why don’t any of the other versions make use of the possibiities of BILLOWING CLOAKS?

(Does Branagh, perhaps? I’ve forgotten already, but I’ll remind myself soon when I rewatch and write about his ghost encounters. Flowing robes seems a very Branaghlike trope.)

I’m here today to break down the Franco Zeffirelli HAMLET though — the one with Mad Mel. Just two arch-Catholics hanging out together in a Scottish castle.

FZ — I keep thinking that must stand for Frank Zappa, but never mind — foolishly omits the ghost’s first appearance, which gets his film off to a far weaker start. But he has a great cast, except for his Hamlet. Mad Mel has foolishly seized on the chance to do some Great Acting, whereas the thing he could and does contribute most effectively is Movie Star Presence. This is diluted by his attempts to get flowery.

Along with Mel, we have the excellent Stephen Dillane as Horatio, and some other guys I don’t know as Marcellus etc. It’s fine not having well-known faces in every role, in fact it’s preferable to the insanely overstuffed Branagh.

Hamlet is bemoaning his uncle’s wassails, if you’ll pardon the expression, viewing him through an unconvincing grill (I don’t know if you’d want a giant hole in your banquet room ceiling, not in Denmark, although I guess before chimneys were invented you might need something like that so you don’t asphyxiate). In addition to supporting players like Alan Bates, Glenn Close (only 11 years older than her screen son), Ian Holm and Helena Bonham-Carter, FZ has David Watkin on camera and Ennio Morricone on score. Neither of these great talents was doing their most exciting work by this time, but the film looks and sounds good. Watkin and designer Maurizio Millenotti can’t quite convince me the tower set is a real place, and although I suppose with a medieval tower at midnight some form of artifice is always going to be involved. MM was also costume designer, had worked for Fellini, and Gibson would import him for his acclaimed how-to guide to crucifixion, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

I should mention that unfortunately the only copy I could get is 4:3, and it’s not open-matte, meaning I can’t crop it to the right ratio: we’re missing a third of the image. So any aesthetic judgements come with major provisos — we’re not really seeing the film FZ made, even allowing for the reduction in size and definition. Plus my copy is glitchy.

What’s good about the ghost’s first appearance here is that he’s just a colourless figure in the distance. What’s uncanny about him is that everyone recognizes him as a dead man. He’s far enough away that there could be some doubt, which makes things even more worrying, in a way. At a certain distance, you can be sure you know the person you’re looking at, but you could still try to sell yourself on the idea that you’ve made a mistake.

I think all this would be better if we’d had the ghost’s first appearance, though.

FZ’s editor has some unlikely credits. Richard Marden had cut the Olivier OTHELLO (yikes) before being adopted by Stanley Donen for BEDAZZLED and TWO FOR THE ROAD, and then cut the dazzling SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY for John Schlesinger. But he also cut SLEUTH, which I don’t think is a well-edited movie (but Olivier was having trouble with his lines, which may have caused problems), and also also garbage like CARRY ON ENGLAND and WHAT’S UP NURSE! and returned to Donen’s side for the regrettable SATURN 3.

This would all work great except the first shot of the HFG (Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost) shows Paul Scofield, for it is he, in a medium shot, defying all sense of optical POV. And then he gets another closer shot later. This takes me out of the reality of the scene, and in trying to startle us — and it’s not particularly startling — by having PS enter in MS — the film breaks the reality of the scene. If you were Horatio or his chum, you’d first see a wide shot, and then you might filter out the surrounding scenery and mentally create a kind of medium shot. But you couldn’t start with that.

In other words, all the wide shots of the ghost are great, Mel advancing from the distance to his own MS is good, but jumping in for impossible detail views harms the scene. It’s a bit like the horrific moment in THE PIANIST when Nazis throw a disabled man from a window, and Polanski’s camera watches from the window opposite, never taking you unnaturally close. The drama comes from the sense of REALITY, and attempting to amp it up with close-ups would actually detract from that, by putting us where we couldn’t be.

Good bit of following, and the Mel gets up on the tower and finds himself alone. A nice bit of the uncanny. There’s nowhere else the ghost could have gone. And then he’s there — an equally impossible thing.

Gibson’s attempts to get action movie stuff into HAMLET are NOT actually embarrassing: it’s what he’s best at, after all. So he swirls around with his sword, sees the ghost — and immediately drops it.

Great shot of Scofield, just sitting there, making a strange, ineffectual movement, lowering one hand from the battlement, attempting to look as mild and unthreatening as possible, and looking VERY SAD — sad that his only son is afraid of him, I think. A great choice. As impressive as Olivier and Kosintsev’s ghosts are, they can’t do this kind of human stuff.

And then the scene is McKellan’s, and we’re in very good hands. Scofield is quite old to be Gibson’s dad, just as Glenn Close is quite young. The positive side of this is we can imagine her preferring Alan Bates. But that voice! No better casting was possible.

The cutting of the dialogue here is quite good — whenever we see Gibson, it is possible to imagine everything the ghost says being in his mind (the ghost tells Hamlet exactly what, in a sense, he wants to believe, hence “Oh my prophetic soul!”) If Gibson were stronger I’d say hold on him more, but as it is the balance is good and Gibson gets through the scene respectably, mainly just listening and reacting. His bigger moments seem forced.

Slow track in on Scofield, and an even weirder hand movement at 4:08. Somehow Lynchian, in that one senses some crazy backstory there we’re not getting. “But that I am forbid to tell…” The movement seems to ward off whatever harrowing power forbids the ghost.

PG Wodehouse has forever ruined “like quills upon the fretful porpentine” as a dramatic line, if it ever did work, so I don’t miss that bit.

At 4.47 Scofield is suddenly being viewed from a new angle, even though Hamlet, whose POV we assume it to be, hasn’t moved recently. It seems likely that, having no doubt already pruned the text, FZ and his cutter have decided to snip out a chunk of footage. Indeed, all through this scene the dialogue has been savagely slashed, but it kind of has to be for a movie. Even for a play.

Scofield has the best male voice maybe ever. I mean, Richard Burton, yes, and I am partial to a bit of James Coburn, but Scofield is somehow less obvious, he achieves his gravitas without the need for Sensurround rumble. He’s much of what makes Patrick Keillor’s LONDON and ROBINSON IN SPACE two favourite things — I can’t watch Keillor without Scofield, the vacuum left is unfillable.

I started to wonder whether, at some point in this sequence, Hamlet might not want to go to his father. Sure, the man’s a ghost and therefore scary, but as the scene goes on and Hamlet gets over his initial doubt and feels pity for his poor old dad, might it not be a good idea to dramatise that by having him actually approach. And FZ takes my hint — the ghost comes forwards, saying “Adieu” — a bizarro choice but Scofield, but one he sells — if you’re a ghost, you can vanish while walking towards someone — and as the ghost reaches out, Hamlet in turn reaches up — whether to fend off the spook, embrace him, or to stop his own head from exploding, we cannot know — and the reverse angle reveals the HFG has indeed vanished.

The ghost’s “Remember me” is absolutely heartbreaking and haunting.

Now the floor is Mel’s, so things get quite a bit worse quite fast. It’s not a bad choice to have H return to where he has a view of his uncle’s revelling, so he can be looking right at the damned villain while he curses him. But FZ and his cutter include closeups of Bates, midrevel, and have neglected to shoot it from a high angle, so I find its inclusion jarring and clumsy. H then has the line about his “tables” but he hasn’t got any school jotter on him, so the schoolkids in the audience are destined to remain puzzled — he borrows a leaf from Nicol Williamson’s sweaty book and tries to carve his vow on the castle’s stonework with his sword. Sparks fly! Not convinced he could wield a sharp sword that way without losing some fingers.

I think directors should probably listen to the author when he has Hamlet call for his tables, and actually give him some tables. I expect this was done a lot on the stage until it came to seem cliche. but you can enliven tired business, you don’t have to chuck it out completely.

The last bit feels like H should still be writing, but Mel does it as H swearing on his sword, then hyperventilates a bit — this is all quite forced — then suddenly drops out of view. The rest is silence — until Kenneth bloody Branagh rocks up, a mere six years later. Tune in next time to hear Prince Hamlet say… absolutely everything.

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s scenes #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2022 by dcairns

Twenty-one years post-Olivier, Tony Richardson brings HAMLET to the screen in a bold and cheap undertaking, filmed entirely at the Roundhouse Theatre, using every inch of backstage space, a trick comparable to Welles’ use of the Gare D’orsee in THE TRIAL. The comparison is in the repurposing but also in the fact that the environments don’t really pretend to be the places the script would have you believe they are. We can TELL Welles is using a railway station and that adds to the film’s surrealism. We can tell that the redbrick warren — in fact, a former railway engine shed — of Richardson’s HAMLET isn’t a realistic Elsinore of the late middle ages. This doesn’t exactly impart surrealism — in a sense it imparts a spurious taste of realism, the kind Richardson made his name with. It’s an industrial space. It has grit. And it also emphasises the theatrical nature of the venture, since it resists pressing into service as a royal abode, works only as backdrop.

To prevent this setting becoming too glaringly false, Richardson makes his movie almost entirely in closeups. This movie may be tighter than Dreyer’s PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. To the immense credit of Richardson and cinematographer Gerry Fisher (who may have operated the camera himself, union rules permitting, or there may be an uncredited wizard at work), the shots are incredibly mobile and inventive, constantly reconfiguring the compositions to switch from one character to another, regroup characters, reposition and reframe individual characters, in some really quite long takes.

Here I was going to quote David Thomson’s amusing Richardson takedown from his Biographical Dictionary of Film, but I’ve just discovered it’s not on my shelves. I definitely didn’t throw it away because Richardson’s wrong about Richardson. But apparently I found some reason to make shelf space for something else. Thomson claims that Richardson was a demonstrably lousy filmmaker. I think a short burst of HAMLET gives the lie to that supposition — you can insist that Richardson never made a film that worked, if you like — that’s subjective, and I would disagree but it’s a claim you can stand behind. But whether Richardson’s HAMLET works as a whole, what we see here is quite a lot of skill. I mean, tons.

The curse of Scottishness, embodied by John Laurie’s Francisco in the Olivier, is now passed to Gordon Jackson as Horatio, and from him, presumably, to Nicol Williamson’s Dane. Other interested parties: Robin Chadwick as Francisco and John Trenaman as Bernardo, or Barnardo if you believe the IMDb. A number of the spear-carrier types in this production went on to considerable careers — Michael Elphick, Anjelica Huston, Roger Lloyd Pack, but these two stayed just as useful background.

Richardson starts off on red brick — start as you mean to go on — then glides DOWN to a brazier, viewed from the inside, Francisco poking at it. We don’t see anyone’s breath but we feel the cold, I think — just from the acting. We cut to see who’s coming, and then it’s all one take!

Only blunder — Jackson should have waited a second before delivering his last line, so he could get his glasses off and stop masking his face with his hand. But that’s the kind of error you get in long takes, the price you sometimes have to pay. With video assist and a very long schedule you can maybe solve every case of it (or with CGI retouching, I guess).

Shakespeare makes a mistake, or at least plays fast and loose too — in the full text, we’re told it’s just gone midnight, but then at the end of the scene it’s dawn. But I guess we’re up north, land of the midnight sun. Poor ghost, condemned to fast in fire in between walking the earth, but it’s 90% fire to 10% walking.

Count the number of different compositions we get in this oner.

The ghost does not appear save as a light on the characters’ faces and a Delia Derbyshire electronic music effect.

The same holds true in the second ghost scene (apologies for the glitch in the middle of this one: my fault). A great solution, if you’re uncomfortable with showing a ghost. Richardson, being a realist, approaches the Jonathan Pryce angle — Williamson voices the ghost’s dialogue along with his own, which makes sense — Shakespeare seems well aware that the ghost is telling Hamlet what he wants to hear, what he already feels to be true (“Oh my prophetic soul!”) So anything that brings that out is psychologically valid. But Richardson doesn’t need to cut the first scene, as Richard Eyre did for the Pryce version.

(Frankly, squeamishness about having a ghost appear strikes me as silly, audiences are capable of imagination and accepting things in drama which they don’t ordinarily believe in. But deciding not to show the ghost is interesting to me as an ambitious creative choice.)

Good long takes again. If we were showing the ghost, it would be harder to avoid a shot/countershot strategy, but from what we’ve seen, Richardson and his team could have managed it. There MAY be a hidden cut when the ghost departs and Williamson turns.

Both our versions so far have ommitted H’s talk of his “tables” — maybe because they’re wary about their Hamlets looking too old to convincingly play students. But Williamson does “set it down,” but by scratching on the wall with his dagger, and then visualising the wall as Claudius and knifing it. (Claudius, by the way, is Anthony Hopkins, a year younger than the actor playing his nephew, which is FINE.) What he actually scratches is something like IILITII — passable gibberish. But his method of writing is only good for runic symbols, it’s hard to say one thing while carving another, and anyway, he’s overwrought.

As with Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet, and others, the role of Hamlet is nearly always played by actors older than the character seems to be. (Is Hamlet two ages? How long is he away in England? I get the impression it’s not long at all, but he’s thirty when he comes back.) The assumption is always that a really young actor won’t be able to pull it off, but I imagine there would be gains as well as losses in having someone who looks like they could be a student. Hamlet’s agonies are somewhat adolescent.

Williamson, pasty-pink Scotsman, is nobody’s idea of a student. But he makes a very credible madman. And he covers a wide span between the conversational, making the words seem like he’s just thinking of them as we watch, and the truly freakily overdone. I would like him to keep more cool, but Hamlet is a fairly histrionic fellow I guess (the adolescent side).

Although this is fairly different from Olivier’s approach — and I think Hamlet benefits from a less controlled performance — both approaches are valid, though — both films go for a vaguely Elizabethan wardrobe (hard to work out who Richardson’s designer is — Jocelyne Herbert is credited as production designer, and she did do costumes on occasion — Philippe Pickford is wardrobe master, per IMDb — but I presume he just looked after the stuff and got it onto the various bodies. I like spoken word credits, but they always have to leave out so much.

There’s maybe a dash of medieval in there too. I think, in a film, there has to be some sense that this is a different historical period, so you can have swordfights and stuff. I forget how the Michael Almereyda version handled the swordplay — mainly I remember Ethan Hawke doing “To be or not to be…” in a video store, and when he gets to “…and lose the name of action,” you realise he’s in the Action Movies section. But you can also see WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? on the shelf. Which is the kind of blunder you’d get in a real Blockbuster, but is rather distracting during the big soliloquy.

I’m not going to do the Almereyda. Should I do the Zeffirelli? The old bastard did rather impress me with his episode of 12 REGISTI, so I think I should…