Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hallowed be thy Shakes: A Tale of 3 Great Macbeths, Drunk (Saucy Doubts and Fears Edition)

 It's got witches mixing psychedelic medicine in basements of wrecked rectories, real Hunter S. Thompson-esque fear and loathing, windswept obsidian shores, 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.

A tale of woe, blind ambition, remorse, hallucinations, drinking, power couple goading, archetypal psychology (Lady Macbeth is a great paranoid/inner critic anima), magical spells, ghosts, floating daggers, cold-blooded regicide, Macbeth captures the 'wait until your dad gets home' dread, that feeling of coming out of two day black-out alone in bed with one shoe still on, and your girl asleep on the fold-out in the living room (and not asleep by your side, for reasons you--as yet--know not) and there's magic marker all over your face, and, consumed by bottomless regret, you reach for the one friend still with you in the universe, that half-empty whiskey bottle under the bed. Sure, Erich, thou villain, thou Patch!, sure, the play itself is cursed, and hath in its influence curses thee! 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, too, are I always thought of as the most fucked up yet strangely beautiful romances in all Shakespeare, the one 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 to this loving couple, 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 like kids on Christmas eve, this 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.

Say what you will about that kind of attitude, it beats mopey Hamlet's, or self-loathing Othello's. From evil to guilt to tumbling madly into the abyss, Lady Macbeth and her man never waiver in their devotion to each other, even if they may hesitate before their nasty deed or regret it after. Wracked by guilt, paranoia and regret as they both are, they never rat each other out, nor blame each other, but when the jig is up, each face their own demise with brave and wild-eyed willingness.  In short, they're the UK's first Syd and Nancy!

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 good as the other two: 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 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 walls. 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. As Lady Macbeth, with her animistic antennae eyebrow paint and scale-evoking pattern on her full puffy kimono, trailing behind her, she looks and moves like some slow, graceful but landlocked marine mammal / sea serpent. Her reasoning is what's so scary here, slowly poisoning our Washizu's mind that if the emperor knew of the spirit's prophecy he'd slay him in advance of it coming true, etc. - and that ominous bird cries in the night are the 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. In other versions she goad the murders into being but then falls into madness for most of the last half; here Washizu is ever-trying to say hey, let's cultivate loyalty in our peers and not kill everyone who poses even a tiny threat, and she's right there, behind him every step, saying in that bone-chillingly lifeless clockwork way, "I do not agree." And the sad beginning, showing the castle and surrounding forest now gone and bathed in treeless volcanic ash makes it 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 imprudence, 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!
Polanski's is my most recent, as it is too the most recent of the three in earthly release date. Here, in colors muted with torchlight oranges, outdoor vistas wherein the treeless Scottish moors stretch so relentless and rolling we can see Banquo's horse through the sunlight glow a few miles off, offset by majestic sweeps of black sandy shore at low tide and magic hour castles, the gorgeous hair of Lady Macbeth at magic hour, praying for demonic guidance against setbacks to her grim resolute regicidal purpose (i.e. I hope I don't get my period); the sudden gathering of rain outside the castle walls and the lonesome pipe granted more heady weight than her taut beguiling whispered prayers; much of the poetic dialogue is internalized--festive castle night interiors with people all crashing in hay and by torch light glowing over all with a cheery orange that seems to beat back but only just the shadows, Macbeth ever trying to make it back in to the warmth, amidst the saved and friendly but his sexy wife's lust for power overriding his, and the jealousy wrought by seeing younger boys inherit via birth alone heady mantles of power enough to drop the faintest splotch of poison in a mind that soon replicates it like a spreading fractal fever.

I've seen it but a few times. I've seen Orson's countless times. Over and over again once while convulsing alone in my apartment after an alcoholic relapse (Nov. 1998, my sober anniversary), savoring the application to my own twisted state as akin to the madness of his horrific guilt, and the way the gathered lords humoring him, changing sides, etc., the friends and family who make it possible for the alcoholic to have his problem become the white elephant invisible. It's also the closest Orson got to making a horror movie, which is too damn bad. But Polanski made a horror movie or two before doing his Macbeth, so there's a kind of crossroads of Polanski themes a lurking: the madness of beautiful women (Repulsion); the meta connection to brutal, sudden cult-related violence deep within the inviting communal living, (the king's visit like a merry slumber party) ala Manson and the Nazis (including a repulsive bear-dog fight); and the all-consuming horror... of the elderly. (Rosemary's Baby). The additions not scene in other versions include the coterie of disreputable lords who stay with him up until the woods start moving, then grab what loot they can and flee, all sans voice save the hoofs clodding upon stones; and the quiet of the final battle with MacDuff, the sounds of armor, as if each combatant is in a sardine can buffering against castle walls while throngs gather at the sides, with Polanski's camera weaving amidst them like a wary referee as they go smashing around it's a bloody, brilliant climax, making up for in lack of extras in its quiet almost Malick-esque mix of muddy pastoral ambivalence and peerless sound effects.

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. Welles 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, for the banquet of Banquo scene is with most lifeless calm dispatched anon.

But Polanski is always fond of druggy interludes, and thus Finch's Macbeth dost drink deep of the witch's brew (cooled with baboon blood) served like sketchy tannis root desserts to hallucinating Macbeth so he can trip out gazing into the pot, smashing mirrors and running wild through trippy wood. Lady MacBeth (Francesca Annis) is a hippie hottie in the Polanski version, much more so than in either of the other films, using seduction to spur her man forward rather than the Jeanette Nolan nagging or Kurosawa's unconscious mind clockwork manipulation, and the witches number in the dozens and are naked and kinky and only about half are old like a Castavet. Everyone else is young and pretty and the bloodlust that wells up in the breast of our MacBeth (Jon Finch), occasionally bad bangs or no, seems more a madness born of Apollonian narcissism (he has more yes men then in Welles or Kurosawa) and flipside paranoia rather than sleep deprivation and budding alcoholism (as it in Welles) or, in the Kurosawa case, supernatural fatalism and schizophrenia. Take your pick, or pick 'em all, you can't go wrong. Just kill the king and try to play it cool when the suspicious eyes invariably turn to thee... when I draw the Queen of Hearts, my dear breast-nursed serpent, there is no cooler name to say while drunk than... Banquo.

Stand not upon the order of your going!

This is what my first intervention was like


  1. Here's a link to some news footage of Welles' Voodoo stage version:

    As far as this humble viewer is concerned, Welles' 1948 Republic film version with its Expressionistic papier-mache sets blows away all others.

  2. Thank you for the video, Jerry. King Richard III and Macbeth are perhaps the two most compelling villains in Shakespeare's universe. And among my beloved characters.

  3. As a teenager, I was downright obsessed with Orson Welles's "Macbeth." Watched the newly released original cut on video tape non-stop. Janet Nolan's performance drove me wild. The entire film is framed in such a nihilistic limbo.

    Kurosawa's "Kumonosu joh" ("Spider-web Castle," how that became "Throne of Blood" I have no idea) is definitely Kurosawa's best film. Also heavy on the nihilistic framing.


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