The recent discovery of cannabis traces in Shakespeare's old pipes only confirms it: Shakespeare was 'experienced.' It takes weird alchemical magic to write as potently as he did, which means mind altering heights not dreamt of in your dusty professor's philosophy. And even more common than cannabis was the potent psilocybe cubensis mushroom which--lest we forget--grows naturally in the foggy climate of merrye England. Thanks to an obscure but enduring law stretching way back to the ancient times, it's always been an inalienable British right to grow, harvest, sell, and ingest all shrooms. They even had a renaissance when that law was remembered, I saw some for sale at the Portobello Street Fair. I nearly lost my then only five year-old sobriety. I thought I'd stepped into Lewis Carroll's Wonderland or Burroughs' InterZone, or a Hitchcockian version of Pepperland. Then came Ben Wheatley's A Field in England; and then I knew. North America is way, way behind the evolutionary curve when it comes to tripping. And even the ravers of today, no matter how clenched their jaws, can't hold a candle to their Elizabethan ancestors, the flourishing of alchemists, astronomers, and poets, Spencer's Fairy Bower, leading to the metaphysical poets, seances, fairy photography, and ghosts of ancient castles made visible only through enhanced eyes.
Conveying the full breadth of all-cylinders psychedelic madness in coherently poetic dialogue is beyond even the most willing and wasted authors; too often they lapse into either incoherence or abstraction; they fall into the bad trip asylum (Poe, Lovecraft) or the good trip monastery (Ram Dass, Ginsberg), or fake their way along in a kind of faux hip snap (Eric Robbins). Only the truly far out can see once all the walls and territorial lines are burned away there's a radiance so bright it encompasses the depths of darkness and a whole new layer of shadow emerges, and that shadow snakes like the clouds of Sils Maria over Shakespeare's craggiest plays, creating beauty by illuminating in HD clarity the depths of the collective unconscious' and voicing an archetypal rogues gallery. Not all Shakespeare's trippy, but they all have that hip playfulness when it comes to non-sequitors, and Beatles-esque wordplay reflecting the imperanence of life and the constant movement of the moon and stars.
And there's no Shakespeare play more layered in meaning and counter meaning, given the full measure of multiple meanings--all three eyes aligned and taken in the full wide-eyed weirdness--than Hamlet. And no version more attuned to the druggie parallels than Mel Gibson's in Zeffirelli's 1990 film, with: Glenn Close is the queen mother, Paul Scofield as the ghost dad, and a 23 year-old saucer-eyed tarot card come to life, Helena Bonham Carter is that ultimate in hometown girlfriends, Ophelia. I had forgotten all about how good this was until it showed up on EPIX the other day. It blew my mind. How did I forget how good it was? Of course. Mel Gibson. Even then we was too big an action star, so it was stilted down to a snarky late night TV joke. But the joke's on us, because this Hamlet is the one to beat. You can taste the tang of acid in its air and Zeffirelli, who became a counterculture honoree when his 1968 Romeo and Juliet caught on big with the free love generation, hitting the perfect note of how young love and idealism is trampled underfoot by the older generation's petty grudges (Vietnam, the drug war as an excuse to arrest and ruin innocent flower children for the crime of being free, etc.) Well, a lot has changed since then, but you can still feel the psychedelic pulse in all Zeffirelli's subsequent work. I reviewed a lot of it for the Muze canon at the turn of the century, while I was newly sober, and seeing his long version Jesus of Nazareth and Brother Sun Sister Moon was a bona fide spiritual awakening). I hated The Dreamers, but think Stealing Beauty is underrated. Zeffirelli works in a kind of Merchant Ivory of Italy classical beautiful light style that's almost cliched'ly 'art house' but he's the real deal, his films pulse with a genuine connection to Italian art stretching back to Michelangelo, a sublime mix of sublime natural light craftsmanship and genuine artistic-spiritual feeling. In other words, he's a perfect Shakespeare dude, he's the Italian William Blake.
It's not for everyone, that kind of 'high strangeness.' You have to be drawn to it, called. Most people fear it--they cite government misinformation about how it damages chromosomes and makes for mutant children; or that--in letting go of your sanity--you may never get it back, never quite come down--which is true. This kind of reticence, fear of flying, appears in Hamlet courtesy of the coterie of buddies who lead Hamlet to the battlements where his father's ghost walks, then urge him not to follow where it beckons, as even seemingly benevolent spirits can turn into demons and convince you to jump--that you can fly... mirroring another big urban myth about LSD. How often have dumbass wallies been drawn to to the ledge with absurd thoughts of flight or elasticity of bone!? Hard to say, as that sort of detail doesn't get reported in general, except through the grapevine--it's just another college student leaping off the roof otherwise. The thing with psychedelic drugs though, is dosage. A drop gets you high, but drink the whole vial and your psych-ward bound. You're only chance is to get very, very drunk and/or gobble many Thorazine. That's why any good and responsible dealer in the more extreme of psychedelics takes care in prescribing. Give a 90 pound nerd the same dose as a Woodstock-era Wavy Gravy and you've got either a complete breakdown (like that naked chick trying to crowd surf in Gimme Shelter) or worse, a guy who's not nearly as high as he needs to be.
Thus the detailed caution of Horatio and the rest of Hamlet's entourage, that the father's spirit might be a trickster, the type who tells you three truths so that you believe the fourth which is the lie that undoes the other three before you can profit by them, as if this was all too common, a form of demonic possession or cult brainwash (isolate the subject from his friends, make it impossible for him to turn back, and then spring the trap). That Shakespeare had even the language for such bedevilment (the priest cautions against the three trickster witches' predictions in Macbeth) indicates this was a time when people were still allowed, perhaps, to believe in such things, especially in Elizabethan England, "the Golden Age." In that era of freedom from Catholic church oppression, discussing supernatural beings openly in a play was a form of ideological propaganda against those who believed only priests were allowed to see spirits, and then only holy ones. In fact, America's own draconian drug laws make a fine analogy to their persecution of witches and pre-Christian herbology. The caution against believing witches or ghost dads the same as cautioning against a charming dealer who lures you in with tasty free weed, and moves you slowly up to inescapable and expensive heroin.
Black magic, in fact, is all over Hamlet. Just like at Jimi Page's castle or NASA, there's deep 'rottenness' in Denmark. We never see the odious Claudius given evil ideas by spirits himself--there's no three witches pronouncing him Thane of Cawdor but it's trickster move-countermove as Hamlet's rash ghost-fueled frenzy of revenge strikes amiss and kills doltish Polonious instead, setting off a whole second arc of vengeance this time from Laertes on Hamlet, the instant chain of bad karma set in motion when, for example, a kid you sold doses to gets busted and next time you see him is toting two tie-dye undercover cops (Rosenkrantz and officer Guildenstern) who speak to you with falsely jocund familiarity. We'd let them know that we were drunken high-as-hell decadents only north by northwest; when the wind blows southerly we know a righteous high brother hawk from a narc handsaw.
It takes him a few beats for him to snap out of his wan funk, but after dad's ghost lures him up to the dangerous heights of the Stonehenge-tower battlements, after receiving 'the word' from his ghost father, he's like Moses coming down the mountain, then Mel's genius madness kicks in. For his Hamlet, performing his madness in a way that hides his true insanity by conveying it openly (a trick I myself did when shrooming my face off at the dinner table and trying not let my parents notice) then he's already past the point of no return, arguing with himself, stalling, hallucinating dad wherever he looks but paralyzed with dread--as we all would be at the thought of killing our uncle in cold blood--and going genuinely insane from the acting of it, dragging Ophelia (her "young woman's wits mortal as an old man's life") in his lysergic wake; she's the girlfriend you convince to shroom with you but it's soon clear she's not going to handle it well at all, and you're too far yourself to talk her down, and his mom, too, going mad--as if it's a contagious disease spread by this initial horror.
And as that dame of Denmark, a 23 year-old Helena Bonham Carter, is the most dosed of all Ophelias. Super duper young and fetching, able to oscillate brilliantly between innocent, confused, thrilled, blessed, sexually aroused, distracted, crushed, and round the bend wavelengths all in a single bounding wave of a chicken bone she thinks is a flower (but could even more easily be a thick psilocybe cubensis stem), Carter's game for whatever. Like all the best young saucy acting natural blue bloods of England (she's related to baronesses and prime ministers), she's got the kind of class that goes so deep she doesn't ever deign to be merely ladylike. Architecture of the era was designed to compliment her cheeks and eyes. So unlike American actors who, alas, get stuck in the white elephant tar pits of bourgeois loftiness when doing Shakespeare, their bodies and tongues forced into all manner of unnatural poses, passing the antithetical monologues across the proscenium arch as if kicking it against the wind, Carter swims in it. It's like that line in Hawks: She's so good she doesn't feel she needs to prove it.
In 1948, mountaintop-been-to madman Welles' termite art Macbeth came to art theaters but was overshadowed by Olivier's white elephant Hamlet the same year. Olivier's was how Shakespeare should be done the bourgeois critical body proclaimed. For Welles, 'done' was the key word there--his Shakespeare writhed and pulsed as something never done... eternal as madness itself. The best moments in Olivier's Hamlet are with the ghost dad, who looms in full and weird armor enshrouded by fog and speaking in an echoing boom whisper, seeming to be flowing right out of Hamlet's brain. Welles' entire film flows that way. (See Hallowed be thy Shakes).
|Pssst, those stones in the moonlight look like me in about 20 years, i.e. rock, star-crossed, stoned dead - but an experienced space cowboy would just eye this specter and presume it's a hallucination... even if it's real, isn't it safer?|
And when Hamlet comes down from the parapet he's alight like some mix of Moses from the mountain and that annoying kid who comes back from Burning Man or the Rainbow Gathering with dreadlocks, an activist girls phone number, and the feeling he's been chosen to keep the world green. For one semester's stretch he doth berate unreceptive ears with facts gleaned from phone calls with his allegedly corporeal Greenpeace girlfriend. The ranting rage of Mel crying "like a whore" and unpacking his heart with words (and pamphlets) rather than direct and violent action (blowing up a factory). His is the woeful midnight tantrum of a lad who realizes no amount of feeling-- poured into his angry young poetry slam soliloquy notebook even unto whiskey stained margin--will undo the catastrophic damage his already crumbling American white male legacy hath wrought upon the world. Even if he pound his plodding pen to plastique it would explode no illusion beyond popping the proud bubble of his own inchoate solipsism.
And in this analogy to a college drug dealer drinking his way towards a chimera self assurance, each new blessed deliverance from the dead father's terrible injunction, that crippling superego self-consciousness, comes at a terrible price. He can't even make out with his mother in her bed than dad's ghost pops up, dismayed at this halting of his son's bloody path.
In order for this all to become psychedelic though, it can't be told by the British, by the Royal Shakespeare Company... neither Italian Zeffirelli or Australian Gibson are inclined to be all Olivier-level wry, measured, or fey--they don't need to work a slow unraveling with subtly sloping energy levels like Kenneth Branagh. It's a deep psychedelic resonance that's lacking in later and earlier versions: Hamlet as a raving but hyper-eloquent lunatic, the type to smash phones in hotel lobbies, leave anti-Semitic rants on answering machines, and trash hotel rooms in fits of manic pique, stabbing at the rats he sees in the walls and behind the paisley tapestries of his college dorm (but what about the Poloniuses hiding inside your skin, bra?). In typical Zeffirelli style, the dusky David Watkins cinematography uses natural light streaks which with the floating castle dust gives it all a haunted painterly quality. Then, at first unrecognizable, along comes Ennio Morricone laying down a score that only becomes clearly his own (via wordless swooping Marni Nixon-esque top notes) during the mad scene up in mom's boudoir, which makes sense as it's such a giallo moment--incest, bloody murder, hiding, insanity, blades piercing through barriers, vows of secrecy, maternal guilt. Despite the tightness of her hippy braids, Glenn Close is subtly unhinged as the queen, following Ophelia following Hamlet into that blessedly cracked and melted mirror which--through the totality of its warp--undoes sanity's merciful blurring and throws the horror of the real into unyielding focus.
|Author at left -Oakwood Cmty, Syracuse NY 1986|
The graveyard, Oakwood, in Syracuse, where I shroomed so much in the late 80s and where we too found a skull, but it wasn't of poor Yorik, but H.B. Crouse one of the trustees of one of the lecture halls... and some idiot freshman took it back to his dorm and started boiling the skin off (in the communal Flint Hall kitchen) so he could use the skull in an art project. Yeah man, eerie similarities. I was too aware of that I was having dated in the hippie chick A-list towards the end of my band's tenure, and they were all as thick in the head as thieves in their warrens. Anyway, the morning after we first hooked up (me still high on shrooms, natch), me and this gorgeous Italian-American crystal blue-eyed girl who shall be nameless but had been following me like a haunting dream all through sophomore and junior year; we saw the broken-in tomb and the skull sticking out, and I thought about climbing through the bars to get it (which the more limber of us could do and regularly did, that mausoleum being on the hill we all hung out on -sort of our unofficial hippie meeting place. I almost climbed in to take it, but then she stopped me... and a day later we read about this idiot getting kicked out of school. (I wasn't in the dorm then, and would have got away with it---for I had thought the same thing, get in there, get the skull, boil the parchment think skin and long thin gray hair (for hair really does keep growing after death) off in a big pot, and have the coolest of all skull tchotchkes. I was glad I'd listened to her though, then. For it would have no doubt cooled our budding love if naught else.
Man, that girl really did a number on me... so hot, so cool, ultimately so dumb... she could kill a big swinging group conversation stone dead with a single interjection. I didn't realize at the time how really pretty women are often damaged from excessive male attention that they act like idiots almost as an unconscious passive aggressive dude repellant... and never need to develop the wits by which the lesser mortals up their appeal. It wasn't a stretch for me to realize her attraction to me, then in my the first flower of my alcoholism, paunchy and bloated, was part and parcel of this idiocy. Her beauty was such I could barely look at her without it hurting. Those clear light blue eyes with flawless white skin and wild jet black hair, I still feel my electric blood up its voltage just in thinking about her. She and I went westward after graduation to seek our fortunes. Shrooms told us we were broken up on afternoon at the Seattle aquarium after about a year. I moved back east to my rotten Jersey Denmark basement, my parents shaking their heads over my erratic drunken unemployment. And only then (as you know from my incessant mentioning) I realized I loved her. If it wasn't for Night of the Iguana who knows where i might be today? And when this film came out, the same year, I taped it and watched it over and over, though at first it wrankled, for it was painful seeing Max Max so hampered by conscience against a foe so worthy of his usual vengeance. He should have chained Claudius to a car about to explode and left him with a hacksaw and five minutes on the clock.
In between TV access (my dad watched a lot of golf, baseball, and football), I smoked and drank in the dark cellar and wrote her endless letters. Only decades later did I realize how easy true love is when so one-sided. On Facebook now she's old, gone wild gray haired and dowdy like an Anna Magnani--but in 1990--ah, she was still so hot--I wrote her such letters from my boomerang ensconcement back east in my parents' boozy Jersey basement as would wilt the most iron rose to mush. I got a phone call one afternoon whilst half asleep in a dopey drunkard funk--twas her new husband! He promised to kill me should I ere I write again. I was furious and hurt, but obeyed, my love wounded gravely until my own insanely jealous wife, ten years later, forced me to make a similar call, to a girl in Seattle-- a different one--ah, life, like Shakespeare, never offers one absurd staged scene within a scene lest its dark twin later appear, warped and ill woven as if to mock the first, hence the conscience of the king-catching drama Hamlet writes (the artist's version of vengeance?) mirrors the scene Ophelia is forced to play to lure Hamlet into confessing his love and intent while their fathers watch from without. Polonius's strategy here is eerily similar to when I first had dinner with the aforementioned hot girl's Italian-American parents; after dinner the dad plied me with wine, drinking along as I downed a giant bottle and got more and more wasted. I thought we were bonding, but they were testing me, worried I was a drunk. The dad though, was delighted as well, to have an excuse to drink so much. His father had a problem too, and when he'd do shots with me I'd hear about it as grandma had to clean the sheets the next morning, for his bladder was not strong.
I mention this, why? This all went climaxed in 1990 --a magical year - the big hair 80s disappearing into the past. As if a herald, Zeffirelli's Hamlet arrived, and symbolizing the death of the home perm, Gibson's hair legions better than Olivier's super short and creepy blonde bangs.
As for the recent anti-Semitic deep end of Mel; well one can't fake crazy that well, unless one is a bit crazy to start with, which is the problem with so many British interpretations. With a masterful slow boil, Gibson seems overwhelmed and weakened by the role until the ghost encounter-the deep end beckons, he dives in. His Hamlet's obnoxious, the type you never want to see movies with because he's always shouting "this is the part where..."
And there it ends... I refuse to give away the ending, or influence your findings. I will say that all enduring works tend to be universal, organizing one's own history like a transparent overlay, and so it has done the same to mine. See it on an ergot-encrusted rye cracker and peanut butter and think of me as I used to be in our old rooms at Allen Street, pacing to and fro with my bong and bass, and driving the neighbors to the point of sad distraction. Oh wait, that's Sherlock Holmes, not susceptible to the gibbering unspeakable elder god things in heaven and earth, more ghosts and machine elves, and absinthe demons-- than are dreamt of in his philosophy or fairy photography! Watson, the needle... is dusty. The charm's unwound. We will speak further...
1, I rag on Olivier a lot - BUT he does deliver a great termite Shakespeare on film//video performance, and that's, strangely enough, while in disguise of blackface and a voice lowered a full octave as OTHELLO (1965). Though shot on video, it pulses with an off-the-cuff energy that makes it feel like it's all happening in real time, with a great 'go on forever' settting sun orange sky and a superlative Iago in Frank Finlay; though Welles' OTHELLO finally looks good on a remaster which will be on Blu-ray hopefully soon, he's almost out-Wellesed by Olivier here.