Archive for The Tragedy of Macbeth

One scene, three times. (3) Coen.

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

As mentioned before, the new THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is very good, at least much of the time. There are lots of things about it I don’t think work, but lots that do and in unfamiliar ways. It has a nice blend of the cinematic and the practical. Its version of the Macduff news scene (Act IV, Scene II) isn’t the most interesting, but the bland shot-countershot approach is actually fairly good for clarity. I shows the three versions of this scene to my students and they found the cutting helped them read it as an argument, back-and-forth, question-and-answer. They found the Polanski version more emotional though.

Joel Coen seems to have copied Polanski & Tynan’s idea of making Ross a traitor, but takes it even further and makes him the third murderer who lays in wait for Banquo. Alex Hassall plays him as one sneaky bastard. Harry Melling is Malcolm and Corey Hawkins is Macduff.

In keeping with the film’s grey, misty, stylised look, Coen sets the scene along an avenue of curiously 2D trees. Any time you have an avenue of trees, you want to track, so that’s how he starts the scene. He’s also making a nice transition from the previous scene, the massacre at the Macduff home, so we start with smoke filling the screen, which becomes mist, which lifts to reveal first the trees and then Malcolm and Macduff.

It could be a little hard to figure out why these two guys are out for a stroll in this cultivated area, if we were encouraged to think about that, but we’re not. Shakespeare doesn’t really provide any clues, though it’s likely he imagined a road, but probably not one that’s had the services of a landscape gardener. We can dimly see other trees, so the idea seems to be that this path is cutting through a forest, but the evenness of the foreground trees make them seem deliberately planted, not wild.

Our chaps stop as they notice someone approaching. It’s Ross, power-walking in their direction, with long floppy sleeve-ribbons flapping by his sides. He’s apparently out for a stroll too — since it makes sense that we’re safe in England, he’s apparently power-walked from Dunsinane, a distance or a hundred or so miles, depending on how far south we are. But again, this needn’t matter.

The effect of Ross’s costume is oddly priestly, harkening back to the Welles version.

Coen has now set up a symmetrical shot/counter-shot scenario. He has a gentle track towards Ross, which suggests the POV of Malcolm and Macduff but isn’t, since they’ve stopped walking. Ross stops in medium shot and decides that M&M are a little ways screen right, so that’s where he looks. When we cut to them, the view is no longer so symmetrical and they look screen left. This ties these two shots together and means we don’t feel the immediate need for a master shot showing all three dudes.

As in the Polanski, Ross’s speech about how terrible it is in Scotland has to be played convincingly, but the audience knows it’s not really sincere, since Ross is playing both ends against the middle.

This creates a difficulty, potentially, when Macduff asks “How does my wife?” Ross looks very uncomfortable, as well he might, and says she’s fine. Well, he has to, because that’s what Shakespeare’s written, but asides from it being in the script, WHY? In both the Polanski and Coen, Ross has been rewritten as a traitor, so it’s a little hard to impute to him the delicacy of feeling that could cause him to fail to break the bad news at his first attempt.

I don’t hugely like Hassall’s perf, which mostly seems to telegraph sinister intent and insincerity. And, as in the Polanski, psychology gets flung out the window at this point, with Ross dithering about the facts for no good character or narrative reason. Hassall does at least get to be on camera for this moment, though, which was more than John Stride got in the Polanski, and he shows discomfort, uncertainty, which helps.

Unlike in the Welles and Polanski versions, there’s no attempt to provide visual evidence that Malcolm is raising an army in England. Welles inserts a chunky English knight and throws him some secondhand dialogue, Polanski comes up with an entire army in training, even if it’s quite small (maybe a hundred men?). Coen just has the principles stand and talk about it in the abstract.

So far the coverage is quite boring, I have to say. You can hardly imagine Coen being bothered storyboarding this. We now get a closeup on Macduff, balancing Ross’s shot for the first time. Melling also now gets a CU. So we have three talking heads in front of a photograph of trees. In fairness, there are much more interesting scenes in the Coen film. It’s like he resents having to leave Macbeth’s moral decay behind in order to carry on the plot here.

Forced to come to the point, it’s Hassall who turns his back on us, pirouetting away in angst and bounding back to deliver the fatal thrust.

Hawkins as Macduff now follows the familiar pattern or retreating into a longshot, rear view, but not before a long lingering reaction in closeup. Which I think he does quite well. You see the tremors as he tries to maintain control. It’s a subtle, intelligent rendering of an emotion that would, in reality, be much uglier, more unbearable to see, but it’s not certain that Macbeth would benefit from hysteria at this point. And does it make sense to do iambic pentameters while hysterical? The underplaying seems like a smart choice.

A reverse angle eventually shows us Hawkins’ face again, with everyone lined up geometrically. Malcolm consoles Macduff with a hand on the shoulder, just as Stephan Chase had done for Terence Bayler in the Polanski. Hawkins delivers “HE has no children,” with real rage, and better still, Melling shrinks back from this in mild alarm and shame. As well he might.

Hawkins does the rest of this with a smart study in grief and rage, building nicely to the determination to seek revenge. He turns away again so we can go back to the figures in receding sequence, then turns back and strides forth into a fresh composition, over Ross’s shoulder.

This is very stand-and-deliver standard delivery. It’s just basic coverage. Nothing is really emphasised by creative or expressive choices, though elsewhere in the movie there is more of this. It does foreground the performances though, even if the people seem sort of nailed to the ground, occasionally moved around like chess pieces, which is maybe a downside of storyboarding everything and just shooting the boards.

There are better scenes in the Coen film — some are inspired. Maybe I should compare the second witches visits in each film? At any rate, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little sequence of posts. Something I might do again with different film adaptations of a different source.

One scene, three times (2) Polanski

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2022 by dcairns

Polanski’s approach to Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III in his 1971 adaptation is, we have to think, informed by the fact that, unlike almost anybody else attempting the scene, he had lived it. A man receives the news that his wife and child/ren have been murdered while he was out of the country. What’s that like, Roman?

Polanski is, quite understandably, extremely annoyed by critics who try to impose a simplistic autobiographical reading onto this film, and his work in general — my friend Mark Cousins walked boldly into this issue when he interviewed RP for the BBC. It was a pretty lively, rebarbative chat — some of the most feisty stuff got cut out, but Mark wrote about it for Sight & Sound: Polanski doing a big snore noise when he didn’t like a question, that kind of thing.

RP has said that he chose Macbeth to adapt precisely because critics couldn’t claim he was making a film about the Manson murders, since all the violence is already in the text. A naive supposition, admittedly. The only way to have escaped the armchair shrinks would have been to make a film with no violence whatsoever. Instead, Polanski and co-scenarist Kenneth Tynan created a world where bloodshed is the norm, so that it arguably loses much of its moral dimension, becomes all-pervasive.

While Welles repurposed Ross as the Holy Man, Polanski & Tynan work some character redesign of their own. Rather than being a sort of Basil Exposition figure who turns up and delivers information, their Ross is a two-faced traitor, making nice with Macbeth while meeting his enemies on the sly. In this film’s world, honour is an illusion (it ends with another betrayal, another thane* off to meet the witches). Shakespeare typically ends his tragedies with (a) a bloodbath but (b) the restoration of order, which is to be viewed as stable, balanced, good. Not so in Polanski’s films, where the natural order IS chaos.

Unlike Welles, Polanski has a bit of a budget, though it’s still quite tight. But he can afford locations — Wales being closer to the UK production centre than Scotland, he shoots there. So the meeting of Malcolm and Macduff with Ross can happen on an actual road, in an actual valley. This is a film full of production values and realistic detail (Polanski spat a mouthful of breadcrumbs onto a dining table to illustrate the level of authenticity — and grunge — he required) so we open on the sight of what appear to be refugees fleeing their terrible lives north of the border. Pan onto Malcolm and Macduff.

They can afford horses, too, so Ross comes trotting over the horizon line, suitably mounted for the trip. (We’ve just seen him in Dunsinane with Macbeth, so he’s had to travel at least a hundred miles to get here.) Welles’ rebels would have been lucky to get coconut shells.

Instead of saying “My countryman; but yet I know him not,” Malcolm says “Our countryman who seems a stranger to us,” a line NOT IN SHAKESPEARE. Pure Tynan, intended to suggest that Malcolm and Macduff don’t quite trust Ross, feel he’s been a bit too pally with the usurper. This seems somehow like cheating to me. You can impose a personal interp on the play, even if it means distorting some scenes. But just making shit up seems sort of… not legit. Still, Macduff arrives in a wide and dismounts into medium shot all smiles. He is John Stride, and he is a sly one. (Stride is a fine, underused thesp, excellent as the unctuous man from the ministry in JUGGERNAUT.)

Ross bows to the pretender to the throne (we have to call Malcolm that: for now, he’s just pretending) and greets Macduff with a manly hug. As his horse gets led off to presumably have some hay put in it or something, Stride/Ross makes his report on the state of the nation. Said state being absolutely dreadful.

The three walk off into an encampment. Ah-hah! This isn’t a random meeting by a roadside, but a visit by Ross to the enemy’s base. As we get a long shot, a huge swathe of text is conveniently cut, allowing Macduff to cut to the chase and ask after his wife and kids. Still in the wide shot, Ross says they’re fine.

This is a weird choice. Ross knows full well that the whole Macduff household has been put to the sword or worse. As a tiny rear view, Stride can’t inflect the lie with any kind of psychology, so we’re left at a loss as to why he does it. And I do think, even if we’d seen his face, seen a sneaky or uncomfortable look cross it, we’d be a bit puzzled by this behaviour. On his trip from Scotland he’s had plenty of time to think about what to say to Macduff.

I suspect Polanski covered this dialogue with the next shot, but then lopped a big speech out and overlapped some lines to pick up the pace, with the unfortunate result that part of the scene’s meaning becomes a bit blurry. But speed is usually your friend, and he can get over the problem by just rocketing forward to the next good bit.

With the bigger budget for extras, Polanski can show what they’re talking about, vis-a-vis the plans for invasion, so Malcolm stops to have a look at two warriors having a practice bout. The younger one is the film’s brilliant fight arranger, Bill Hobbs. Polanski covers most of the dialogue here with a handheld shot following the men through the mud. Polanski had developed this neat approach to handheld, using the trudging figures to, in effect, stabilise the shot. The actors and camera wobble as one. John Alonso talked about quarrelling with the director on CHINATOWN about whether handheld was appropriate, and found Polanski winning him over with this effect.

Continuing on through the camp, towards where the archers are doing target practice, Ross now decides to tell the truth about Macduff’s family tragedy. We don’t know why he lied before, and so we can’t really understand why he changes tack now. Never mind, onwards! as Boris Johnson is always saying. Leave your calamities in the rear view mirror then blame your critics for fixating on the past, while you line up a fresh disaster.

Polanski’s theory about casting, as expressed to his PIANIST screenwriter Ronald Harwood (in David Wilkinson’s excellent interview book), is that you basically choose actors for what they look like. This is bananas, and dumb, but also true. You can’t get away with useless actors, you need far more essential qualities than appearance, but still, an actor who is the correctly carved block of wood will get you a lot of what you need. It’s essential that they photograph right, that their look suggests the character. I guess Polanski gets the rest of the way by screaming at them, by doing lots of takes, by showing off his karate chops (he was taught by Bruce Lee).

Stephan Chase, then, as Malcolm, has presumably been cast for his long, noble, sensitive, rather sorrowful face, because Malcolm is always at the scene of bad news. John Stride is playing a sneak, but he has to appear trustworthy because on the whole people trust him. He has a bland, mild, round-edged face.

Terence Bayler is Macduff. He’s very dark and baleful of countenance, rather like Welles’ choice of Dan O’Herlihy, in fact. His eyes peer out of a black scowl. Very effective, and little to do with acting. He has a mobile mouth, which is common to classically trained British thesps with good diction. The American mumblers make better tough guys. Ken Campbell worked out that to be threatening on stage or screen, you have to be as good a ventriloquist as possible. You scare the enemy by saying things without seeming to. Bayler is fiery and baleful but doesn’t seem convincingly tough here, because of his flapping, twirling lips. He more than makes up for it in the final duel through sheer physical exertion.

Billy Wilder, asked if he was going to go see ROSEMARY’S BABY, replied “I wouldn’t touch it with a five foot Pole.” But Polanski apparently bore no grudge because he follows Wilder’s dictum about not showing a character’s face when they get bad news. Or almost. He has Bayler turn quickly away as Malcolm mutters “Merciful heavens,” all so quick it’s possible to get confused about who spoke. It’s quite a weak effect, I think. The bold and effective way would be to have his back to us because they’re walking, and then have him stop. Or he turns away to brace himself and we just see him stiffen. Anything direct, anything requiring an expression, an action, or a line, is kind of doomed to be inadequate to this awesome moment. Giving him an expression an action compounds the inadequacy.

But when Bayler trudges off into the middle distance to deal with the shock alone, that works very well, I think. From here on, by sticking to the script more or less, Polanski & co are on firm ground. Macduff keeps asking if his wife is dead too? And his kids? And his wife? It’s absurd and nightmarish and true.

When Polanski throws us a reverse angle, going from three back views to three frontal ones, it’s very effective, and Malcolm’s “Ne’er pull your hat upon your brows,” is occasioned by a very effective stance from Baylor. In the Welles film, Macduff doesn’t have a hat so he can’t pull it upon his brows. Polanski’s adaptations always take blind fidelity as their starting point: assume that everything is there for a reason, and assume you’ll find it out by sticking to it. He apparently filmed ROSEMARY’S BABY exactly as written in the novel, then had to reshape the film to get it to be a releasable length. His OLIVER TWIST includes characters and bits everyone leaves out of their adaptations. The bit about the hat, a strange line which is hard to picture, becomes THE BEST BIT. A psychologically true displacement activity.

(The other filmmaker who had this sort of experience for real was the late Peter Bogdanovich. His response to the news of his partner’s death was to fall to the floor and attempt to claw his way through it. Now there’s a displacement activity. The right actor might be able to do that in a scene, but probably the majority wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I was also very impressed by Abbie Cornish’s performance in BRIGHT STAR: sudden, shattering grief. It’s a difficult thing to show, and your audience may shrink or even giggle. Which is why artifice could be your friend. When the truth works, it’s better. When it doesn’t work, it’s much, much worse.)

When Malcolm proposes revenge as the cure for this tragedy, Baylor’s flat rendition of “He has no children,” is magnificently despairing. You can’t repay Macbeth for this. Revenge doesn’t actually work. But sometimes it may be essential anyway.

Macduff staggers about. He gets into a solo shot, viewed from the side, and when he wonders if heaven looked down at his family’s slaughter, he looks up at the bleak, bleary Welsh clouds.

The rest of the scene plays out in a continuation of this shot, as Macduff sinks to his knees and then, offered a sword by Malcolm, rises to his feet again. Despair is followed by the urge for justice which propels us forward into the next part of the story.

Surprisingly, Malcolm’s cynicism in using Macduff’s bereavement for his own ends isn’t greatly stressed here. He seems genuinely sympathetic.

The offering of the sword, however, seems to echo Macbeth’s earlier encounter with the phantom dagger. This is emphasised by the fact that Polanski frames him as headless, making the sword seem less attached to a person. Fate, or witches, or kings, are always handing us weapons and telling us to get busy. Macduff/Baylor’s fighting stance at the end seems less aggressive, more defensive and wary — he’s not exactly enthusiastic about the coming battle. But he seems to be trying to hallucinate it into being.

(The next scene, fittingly, shows Macbeth riding in long shot from right to left, as if towards Macduff and his vengeful sword.)

One thing Polanski and Tynan do that Welles oddly doesn’t: they end on a line and a moment and a command to go forward, rather than on an EXEUNT, which Shakespeare absolutely had to do in order to bring on the next scene, and which Welles chose to retain. Cutting Shakespeare is absolutely essential for the screen (and quite often necessary or advisable on stage), both to eliminate description of things that we can’t avoid SEEING, and therefore don’t need described, and to propel us forward with a cut.

Endnote: Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD isn’t a favourite of mine. It has stunning scenes, but Kurosawa seems to have no particular sympathy for Macbeth, which maybe you need. No sympathy translates into little interest. Anyway, Kurosawa is excused wrestling with the verse because he’s doing it in Japanese, and rather brilliantly he manages to tell the story entirely without Macduff, so this scene doesn’t appear at all.

*Don’t know what it means.

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.