Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hallowed be thy Shakes: The 3 Macbeths

Shakespeare's Macbeth is super psychedelic Halloweenish expat hallucidoses. It's got witches! It's got real Hunter S. Thompson-esque fear and loathing. It's the thriller from Scotland's Hillas and there's three great film versions by three titans of cinema - Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Akira Kurosawa. Each in its way utterly spectacular.

A tale of woe, blind ambition, remorse, hallucinations, drinking, wife-on-husband nagging, 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 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. And yeah, and the play itself is cursed! Nortious for wreaking havoc on its cast and crew, Macbeth carries a RING-style meta aftershock. 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 also happen to have one of 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. 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. 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.

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, when the prepare him a wild psychedelic potion that sends him deep into an alternate reality dreamscape wherein Satan consoles him with promises that no man of woman born and woods to Dunsinane via talking to him as himself, children, and slain Banquo and there you go; we've all been there. Drinking ground up mushrooms or datura root--"that takes the senses prisoner"--a great freak-out with a bunch of naked witches of various blasted heath and 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 resonate straight through all their age and culture barriers like a sword through a paper walls. Toshiro Mifune in Satanic beard and crazy black hat, was born to look stricken by ghosts and guilt. 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 30 yards away. Meanwhile, Kurosawa is artfully arranging his shot like a moody, foggy, rock garden.

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 spider rampages. 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 war.

The main set for Welles' version, a mishmash of found objects from Republic's western scenery department, consists of 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 great but 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 ala Manson and the Nazis (including a repulsive bear-dog fight); and the all-consuming horror... of the elderly. (Rosemary's Baby).

Suffice it to say, Lady MacBeth (Francesca Annis) in the Polanski is a hottie, unlike the Macbeth of either of the other films, using seduction to spur her man forward rather than nagging, 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) 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 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... when I draw the Queen of Hearts, my dear breast-nursed serpent. There is no cooler name to say while drunk than... time to play a little solitaire with Banquo.

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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