It's got witches mixing psychedelic medicine in basements of wrecked rectories, real Hunter S. Thompson-esque fear and loathing as dysfunctional husbands get DTs at the banquet in front of the guests, and the wife can't tell whether its 6 AM or 6 PM ("which is which!?"), windswept obsidian towers ranted from, and beheadings, child murder, and oblivion, it's Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor, with three great film versions by three titans of cinema - Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Akira Kurosawa. Each in its way utterly spectacular, and in each, further, a druggy odyssey to warm the cold wretches puking their way 'til sickness relents enough to more alcohol purchase in ignoring of their boss's vain demands and threats and concerns, creeping in only when too out of it to remember not to answer the phone.
Sure, Erich, thou villain, thou Patch!, Sure, the play itself is cursed. Notorious for wreaking Tut-tomb-ish havoc on its cast and crew, Macbeth carries a meta aftershock that stretches even into the Manson hills. Those damned witches all but call you on the phone after the final curtain and let you know it's time to meet your promised doom.
Lady Macbeth and Mr. Macbeth, are--I always thought--the most fucked up yet strangely beautiful romances in all Shakespeare, one much more vivid and real to me than, say, the overwrought hamminess of Romeo and Juliet. The Macbeths are perhaps most like the real evil parents we all know, the dysfunctional libertines who flicker to life only when pondering murder on behalf of corporate advancement. For this loving couple know that to diligently work within the system and trade on love of thy courage in loyalty (rather than use thy courage to scourge loyalty and love from the land itself), is the game of suckers. Did the witches not foresee thy greatness? That Macbeth sends a message on ahead to his lady, alerting her to the the witches' freaky prophecy, and he barely gets off his horse and kisses her hello before they're conspiring in hushed whispers, speaks to their odd love. Maybe their sex life isn't so hot. That would explain her cold insistence that she'd smash her own baby against a rock before letting her man chicken out of making her queen. And whose baby did she give suck to, since their union's fruitless?
There's three really stellar Macbeths in cinema thus far: Orson Welles' Republic studio-bound western-on-acid watching IVAN THE TERRIBLE version from 1948, which is my favorite, even though it's nowhere near as technically ornate as Polanski's 1971 naturalistic sex and gore and pretty people version, with the most psychedelic of all second witch visits wherein they give him a psychedelic potion that sends him deep into an alternate reality dreamscape (wherein Satan consoles him with promises that no man of woman born, etc.) and leaves him feeling--temporarily at peace. (We've all been there. Drinking ground up mushrooms or datura root--"that takes the senses prisoner"--leading to a great freak-out with a bunch of naked witches.)
And perhaps the best of all, if the farthest from the original language, Akira Kurosawas's heavy yet delightfully weird THRONE OF BLOOD (1957). Even if the whole butoh theater thing is not new to you, BLOOD's sheer ghostly otherness puts you in a high art trance, occurring mostly in wooden box rooms and across terrifyingly strange landscapes of volcanic ash, it's Kurosawa's great triumph that his windblown images cut straight through all their age and culture barriers like a sword through a paper wall. Toshiro Mifune, in Satanic beard and crazy black hat, born to look stricken by ghosts and guilt. Well do I love how he stands there in these wacky butoh poses, his eyes bugging out, his crazy mascara eyes alight with that 'holy shit' waking up from a three-day black-out expression. We can read every thought that passes across his brow from thirty yards off. Meanwhile, Kurosawa is artfully arranging his shot like a moody, foggy, rock garden but one laden not with Zen wooden flute tranquility but with heavy yet ethereal serpentine guilty dream menace.
As Lady Macbeth, with her horn-antennae eyebrow paint and scale-evoking pattern on her full puffy kimono slithering after her, Isuzu Yamada looks and moves like some slow, graceful but landlocked sea serpent. Her reasoning is what's so scary here, slowly poisoning her man's mind with inescapable logic (if the emperor knew of the spirit's prophecy he'd slay him in advance of it coming true, etc., just to be on the safe side, so the witch's prophecy is itself a death sentence unless he strikes first) and declaring that the ominous bird cries in the night are providence itself bidding him forth to greatness. Her emotionless, measured speech makes it seem, too, as if she's more in the spirit world than that of flesh and time, an extension of the 'weird sisters' (though here replaced by an androgynous old spinner).
In other versions she goads the murders into existence but then falls into madness for most of the last half; here she never relents in her bloodthirsty craft. While Mifune's Washizu is ever-trying to emulate Duncan, to cultivate loyalty in their peers and not kill everyone who poses even a tiny threat, she's right there, behind him, whispering in his ear like paranoia itself, saying in that bone-chillingly lifeless clockwork way, "I do not agree."
And lastly, who cannot love that sad beginning: the castle and surrounding forest now gone and bathed in treeless volcanic ash --a telling warrant against deforestation. The mossy hills of Scotland, the volcanic black sooted slopes of Japan have--alas--enough in common to make cutting down entire forests to merely help mask one's attacking numbers seem the height of global warming-inducing short term imprudence. Human strife comes and goes, but the major long-lasting trauma of this tragedy is one done to the land! And all the little flowers and all the little birdies robbed of nests. And fickle armies who shoot real arrows at their actors in whole volleys, making it seem almost like it's Mifune, not just Washizu, terrified with the realization of immanent harm.
Derek Malcom at the Guardian on THRONE OF BLOOD:
"It was, for what it's worth, TS Eliot's favourite film. The drama is presented with stark economy, its words subservient to the slow exposition of its plot, and the characterization admittedly less subtle than Shakespeare's. But I doubt the Bard would have turned in his grave. Kurosawa's parallel eloquence matches Shakespeare's so completely that it even outshines that of Verdi's musical version."So I love THRONE OF BLOOD, but wish the English version had kept the original title "Spiderweb Castle." I probably would have seen it sooner, imagining giant spider rampages offset with Gothic cobwebbed stoneworj. As it is I've grown comfortable with Orson Welles version and that's surely my favorite. I dream of being able to go back in time and see his Voodoo stage version of the 1930s that made him a star in Harlem. But he didn't star in that production, and if e'er an Illinois ham war born to play Macbeth, drunkenly unspooling vast gusts of Shakespearean wind, Welles is / was / war.
The main set for Welles' version is a great sprawling indoor/outdoor maze of Republic's western scenery soundstages, with the side of a rocky cliff with trails for the horses propped up by columns, like some Escheresque mind trap. Welles' sweaty face foregrounded against the processionals of horses makes them drip like ghost cops from a SHOCK CORRIDOR dream sequence drainpipe. Dig this perceptive piece from a professor named KJ:
Part of its mastery is its use of voiceover for most of the speech. That, combined with Welles' magnificent camera work (including angles, shadows, and focus—or out-of-focus—effects) give us a Macbeth who is more disoriented than evil. Welles seems to have taken Macbeth's inability to sleep and extended it into all aspects of the character. At first, he appears to be playing Macbeth drunk. Upon consideration, he's playing Macbeth as sleep-deprived. As a college teacher, I recognize this as method acting worth of Stanislavski himself!
When the electric guitar finally comes up at the end you feel you've been somewhere soggily majestic where affairs of men make only the smallest ripple, whereas with Welles and Kurosawa one feels it's all largely some mad dream, a Universal horror movie's own laudanum nightmare of foreboding and existential dread. This sense of the surreal occurs in Polanski only during the big period-appropriate psychedelic trip, when Macbeth gulps the potion prepared by the witches that shows Macbeth that which will put his heart at ease (Birnim Wood come to Dunsinane; no man of woman born, etc). Naturally one conjectures what might cause such visions that was available in the area, "the root that takes the senses prisoner" mentioned by Banquo in the earlier sequence, psilocybin cubensis mushrooms, which grow wild in portions of the UK, tannis root, mandrake root, jimson weed, aka 'witches' root', or graveyard toad secretions, or all. It would make sense, as I've found Shakespeare intensely accessible while tripping, the dense oratory and quadruple meanings and prosaic speech all help the enhanced brain stay rooted and enlightened by the nadir of language's capability, rather than leaving it twisting impatiently around the general banalities--suddenly made absurd by chemical blinder-erasure--of normal 'sober' idiots.
Welles might not know of such things, but he takes his horror at Banquo's ghost and turns it into a whole big melt-down of thunder, like a freshmen freaking out at dinner with his parents, thinking he'd be 'down' from his first shroom trip by now, and instead rants and raves at the twitching of the forlorn pot roast as it screams from each unkind cut, while for the seasoned doser such things would raise barely an eyebrow. So it is with Polanski's Macbeth, though there the banquet of Banquo scene is with most lifeless calm dispatched anon, I like after everyone's left and he and Lady M are sitting at the long table and --his tantrum subsided and they alone again-- he calms down and changes the subject to McDuff.
Stand not upon the order of your going!
|This is what my first intervention was like|