Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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 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!?"), it's got maybe the best 'sudden horror' of the reformed alcoholic realizing he has relapsed' (the whole first part of the play leads up to the inevitable murder, building to it, the way the drink demon in your sober mind is always reconfiguring the events of your current moment into a depressive spiral to the inevitable shot at 'just drinking beer or 'just this once") and then what's done is done, the simple deed, the drink/murder plunges Macbeth into an instant soul-crushing depressive horror, leading to needing to stay further drunk to find salvation from the realization, leading to windswept obsidian towers ranted from, and beheadings, child murder, and oblivion. It's Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor!  And there are three great film versions by three titans of cinema - Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Akira Kurosawa. Each film in its way spectacular, and in each, further, a druggy odyssey to warm the cold wretches puking their way 'til sickness relents enough to enable to purchase of more alcohol, their boss's vain demands and threats and concerns creeping in only when one is too out of it to remember not to answer the phone, the answering machine piling up with escalating concern.

But it's more than that, it's a tale of universal, woe, blind ambition, remorse, hallucinations, insanity, 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 a three-day black-out, alone in bed, with one shoe still on, glasses MIA but a bruise on your nose signifying you may have fallen or passed out with them still on, And there's magic marker all over your face, "wherein one may read strange matters" - and, consumed by bottomless regret, you reach for the one friend still with you in the universe, that secret whiskey flask under the bed. You hope, beyond hope, it's still there.

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 couple in all Shakespeare, one much more vivid and real to me than, say, the overwrought impatient 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. This loving couple knows 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 proto-yuppie 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?

Say what you will about that kind of attitude, their plotting and consensual villainy, they're way cooler than mopey Hamlet's, or self-loathing Othello. 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, but when the jig is up, each face their own demises with brave and wild-eyed willingness (or madness). 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 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 stonework. 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 (all-black) 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 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 of perpetual sunset, 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 muddy, rain-streaked cesspool floored but clean-walled castles ever-ominous in their quietude; while below the treeless wet moors stretch on and dwarf and muffle the filthy figures trekking across it, running into one another to deliver messages and tidings of battle; the gorgeous Satanic Druid folk album auburn 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; if so, let promise of greater bloodshed to come be my tampon); the sudden gathering of rain outside the castle walls and the lonesome pipes of approach or cry of a raven 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 and the ever-looming rain and dampness; 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 (there's no music or amplified sound accompanying the stabbings and smashings - we barely hear the knives go in; horrible violence might be seen only in passing a hallway, with no herald, making it all that much more real and sickening; Polanski brings us 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), who--if this film be any indication cannot exist without spectral help (the oldest any non-witch seems to be in the whole film is Duncan in his forties). The additions not seen 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 (we get the sense these guys are really bashing at each other, their swords perhaps dulled but otherwise leaving solid dents in each other's cans.

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 (only mentioned in the Polanski version), 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.

It is thus that, while Welles' and Kurosawa's versions find psychedelic madness through style, Finch's Macbeth--being of the age when such things dwelled in pop culture consciousness (replete with a Playboy production company credit) dost drink deep of the witch's brew and smash mirrors and run wild through trippy wood of the mind while Lady MacBeth (Francesca Annis) slithers between the cracks of social propriety with the effortless cool of a hippie hottie used to being the only pretty, unsullied creature in a ten-mile radius (i.e. the ideal Manson girl plant). In Welles she used belittlement; in Kurosawa, paranoia; for Polanski, Lady M eschews unconscious mind clockwork manipulation in favor of gentle hypnotic seduction/beguilement, and the witches--when revisited--are three no longer but expanded to coven-strength. It's as if 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. Fail not our feast!

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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