The recent discovery of cannabis traces in Shakespeare's old pipes only confirms it: old William 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 tenure-sanctioned philosophy. My high pot-a-this? Will was experienced via 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. I even saw some for sale at the Portobello Street Fair around 2003-4 right out in the open!!. I thought I'd stepped into an alternate dimension, the Notting Hill Interzone! Then a year or ten later came Ben Wheatley's A Field in England a shroomy old gloaming of a thing, and I knew at last how the Elizabethan Golden Age got its space cadet glow. No matter how adamantly they clench their jaws, trippers of today can't hold a candle to that Elizabethan lot: druid hold-outs, alchemists, astronomers, other alchemists, poets, plants and pie-eyed poppinscrabblers, a party so groovy even God got involved, to wipe out the evil Spanish armada as seen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. God hates buzzkills, Phillip!
And God-sanctioned explorations of the druggy British psyche have been flourishing ever since. Unlike America with it's tendency to overdo things, get lazy, then demonizes, trusty Europe just moderates and keeps all its potent herbs handy in its bag of collective tricks. In this they have seldom wavered up through the centuries, from the metaphysical poets to seances and fairy photography, ghosts haunting ancient castles, Crowley to Jimi Page, to ravers, love thugs, post-druids, neo-alchemists --a vast forward rolling spore network visible only through magical pupil dilation. In making them illegal, the 20th Century tried to induce a whole second Dark Age, to wreak the belated King Phillip's Inquisitor equivalent upon our young stoned psyches, but Elizabeth's tide-altering magic still sinks all narcs.
In the words of Peter Tosh, "let them be melted, Jahjah."
Some bedraagled Inquisitors squiggle ashore though, and take shelter deep inside the culture itself, and from there infects the psyche, which is perhaps that's why today's shroomer is seldom as full of fiery oratory as his forebears. Being on massive amounts of drugs seems to invalidate any insight or artistic breakthrough. Trained by pop culture to think he's 'just high' he never considers trying to transcribe his all-cylinders firing psychedelic madness or record it in coherently poetic dialogue. Lapsing into either incoherence or abstraction (a 'good trip' or a bad trip') with no grasp that art lies in between, these fledgling Boswells fall either into the bad trip asylum (Poe, Lovecraft, Thompson) or the good trip monastery (Ram Dass, Ginsberg), or worse, fake their way along in a kind of faux hip sandalwood snap (Eric Robbins, Robert Hunter).
Only the truly far-out there--too far perhaps, to ever just come rolling back all prodigal once their oats are sewn--can see the shadow of the devil even in the blinding light of God, and vice vera (Yeats, Huxley, Joyce). Only the truly far out--but not so far out they can't keep it together long enough to dodge the ambulance, prison and the strait-jacket--can hold off on an emotional reaction of love or fear, a 'this or that', a 'good or bad' duality trap; only the very few. can hold off on judgment until all duality is burned away and a whole second spectrum of shadow and light emerges (Blake, Shakespeare).
Shakespeare brings that layer of madness into perfect visibility for even sober audiences. They don't need the magical dilated pupils to see the fungal network when his language is there to bring that second spectrum up through the depths. Not all Shakespeare's plays are trippy, but they all have a Sgt. Pepper-type of playfulness when it comes to hip wordplay, continually doubling and tripling meanings, each quip laden containing ornate insults and bodily humor on one end and mercilessly accurate piercings of callow folly on the other. The ability to temper lacerating self-awareness with 'fuck it let's party' kind of gallows' humor wit is the most vital skill in the psychedelic arsenal, and there's no Shakespeare play more layered with this overlapping tide of meaning and counter meaning--none more taken over the edge into full night-tripping weirdness without lapsing into histrionics and babbling brooks--than Hamlet.
And no filmed Hamlet is more attuned to the druggy aspects than Zeffirelli's. No more vibrant, wild-eyed appropriately bonkers Hamlet than Mel.
What a supporting cast: Glenn Close is the queen mother, Paul Scofield the ghost dad, and a 23 year-old saucer-eyed tarot card come to life is Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia. I had forgotten all about how awesome she was was until the film poked up through on EPIX the other day. How did I forget? And why didn't I see the shroom connection back in the early 90s when I taped it and watched it around the clock? I was too drunk, too young, Shakespeare too dried in my mind from boring professors and white elephant productions, to fully soak it up. Not even sure why I watched it so often, except that it was great to watch drunk.
Oh yeah, Mad Max Mel Gibson in the lead was the reason, and ironically he's also the main reason today it's not more highly regarded compared to Olivier or Branagh versions. Mel was at the height of his action stardom in 1990, and typecasting being what it was/is, his valiant performance became merely a talk show punchline rather than a cause célèbre. It was a vanity project, they said. Vanity, Horatio? Didn't they mean frailty?
Frailty thy name is Mel. For he hath from the high horse fallen, and the wild-eyed craziness we always knew was really there under the wild-eyed crazy acting is now exposed. But doesn't that make this then the exact right time to re-evaluate his performance as one of the rare truly crazy Hamlets? Now we can taste the tang of acid in Zeffirelli's glowing air, can feel it twist and burn in our saliva, feel it slithering across the decades towards us like a dead king-eating, fractal-spewing, black hole wurm. We see now that Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet didn't just hit big with the free love generation because it tapped the war protest zeitgeist and was gorgeous to look at but because Zeffirelli bore down to the lysergically venomous poetry in it, so that time seemed to stop as heady madness cracked open the world's mean heart and set-a the dove-a free, and then it was shot down by an embittered, jealous Cupid.
Youth politics has changed since 1968 but you can still feel the psychedelic pulse in all Zeffirelli's subsequent work. Maybe he was always hoping, like so many of us, that his next film might strike the match that lights the fuse that blows his legend back to life. I reviewed the entire Zeffirelli canon for the Muze while I was newly sober, and seeing his long version Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Brother Sun Sister Moon (1972) over the same weekend made me a blissed-out, converted Christian for three days, and I wasn't on anything on but the 'pink cloud' of early sobriety - and acid flashbacks. I almost got my own bible or went to church before the spell wore off. So I feel, in a sense, Franco was my first AA sponsor, which might seem at odds with the psychedelic pulse motif I just talked about, but not if you've experienced both the pink cloud of sobriety AND the 'religious experience' that is a psychedelic "peak"--take it from me, there's not too much difference.
But what Zeffierelli really has is the painter's eye: the classical beautiful dusky painterly style that's almost cliched shorthand for 'art house.' His films pulse with a genuine connection to real Italian painting, stretching back to Michelangelo and the Renaissance; a sublime mix of natural light craftsmanship and genuine artistic-spiritual feeling seethes serpent-in-Eden-like and, from this mighty bulb, psychedelic illumination arises --the dilated pupil third eye point where death and transfiguration meet above the eyes of the tripped-out painter. He's the Italian William Blake! His films create the full spiritual potency of the religious experience, the Stendahl syndrome.
It's not for everyone, that kind of 'high strangeness.' You have to be drawn to it, called by an inner voice. Most people fear letting go to the extent such a journey involves (and not without good reason). They stammer excuses that they read LSD damages chromosomes and they want to have children with only ten fingers; or that they're afraid of going legally insane. What it really is, man, is fear of flying, and it appears in Hamlet courtesy of those men 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 lead off the parapet. How often have dumbass wallies on one too many hits jumped out a window thinking they could fly? Hard to say, as that sort of detail doesn't get reported in general, except through the grapevine--it's just another college student suicide otherwise. The kids who didn't jump are certainly going to be too cool to rat him out to the cops, even if he was a wally.
The thing with psychedelic drugs though, is dosage. A drop gets you high, but drink the whole vial and your psych ward-bound. Your only chance to avoid the bughouse is to get very, very drunk and/or gobble many Thorazine. And as far as I know they haven't made Thorazine for 20 years. That's why any good and responsible dealer takes care in prescribing. Give a sober 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 (like Marty Ballin).
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) suggests that cognizance of this kind night-tripping trickster was common knowledge of the day --while in our current society it's known only by a very few maligned and scoffed-at fringe dwellers. That Shakespeare had this level of foresight in dealing with such bedevilment (a priest cautions the same thing re: the witches in Macbeth) indicates this was a time when people encountered supernatural trickster advisers frequently (I've encountered them too, been burned in the exact way Horatio worries about).
Black magic is all over Hamlet, as if Elsinore was Page's/Crowley's castle or NASA, i.e. the deep 'rottenness' in Denmark stems from Satanic root blight. We never see the odious Claudius given evil ideas by spirits himself--there's no three witches pronouncing him King of Denmark--but if they did, off camera, maybe it was a trickster spirit's a priori move-countermove to spur Hamlet's rash ghost-fueled frenzy of revenge just so he'd strike amiss and kills doltish Polonious instead, setting off a whole second arc of vengeance this time from Laertes on Hamlet, thus inaugurating one of those chains of sorrow that evil tricksters live for
All that said, Zefflrelli's Hamlet is not all supernatueal druggy madness, this film: it takes him a few beats for Gibson's Hamlet to snap out of his wan funk so the first few scenes are drippy dull, but bear with it for once dad's ghost lures our Mel up to the dangerous heights of the Stonehenge-tower battlements, shit gets real. When Mel comes back down he's like Moses glowing from his mountaintop. It's then Mel's genius madness kicks in, and it remains for the rest of his film. Just like Mel plays a great crazy person because he really is crazy, he performs Hamlet performing his madness as a way to hide his true insanity by conveying it openly (the way two negatives make a positive) a trick most seasoned trippers practice when forced to deal with (alive, sober) parents unexpectedly. Because after seeing his dead dad's ghost, Hamlet's already past the point of no return, no Thorazine will bring him back: arguing with himself, stalling, procrastinating, hallucinating dad wherever he looks, paralyzed with dread, he acts as we all would (hopefully) when compelled to kill our uncle in cold blood.
Ophelia (her "young woman's wits mortal as an old man's life") follows 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 gone yourself to talk her down. Soon she's taking them nonstop and babbling to herself, singing and dancing up and down the parapets. And then, rather than stand firm against her son's spittle-flecked lunacy, soon his mom, too, going mad--as if it's a contagious disease spread by Pontypool-style oratory.
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 inherited genes, the rarefied poeticism of her cheeks and eyes. 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, Carter swims in the language like an undulating fish. It's like that Hawks line: she's so good she doesn't feel she needs to prove it.
That said, as far as the people who go to Shakespeare plays in America (i.e. the bourgeoisie) are concerned, the more classically highbrow the player, the better, for to them Shakespearean acting must at all times strive for white elephant underlined 'importance' and lofty carriage.
But Shakespeare doesn't need their protection; his work spits openly on such lionization and in doing so elevates itself higher than its forebears --as long as the actors and directors have been to that mountaintop, of course. It can also be as deadly dull as dusty death when that highbrow approach embraces the stilted and draggy as what the 'swells' came to see.
In 1948, mountaintop-been-to madman Welles' termite art Macbeth came to artier theaters but was overshadowed by Olivier's white elephant Hamlet the same year. Olivier's was how Shakespeare should be done, so the bourgeois critical body proclaimed. For Welles, 'done' was the key word. His Shakespeare writhed and pulsed but was never done, as eternal as madness itself. There was the feeling the stage-bound world he created was continuing after the credits rolled, that the next viewing might show a whole different film. Much as I revere Olivier's Hamlet, the best moments are with the ghost dad, who looms in full and weird armor enshrouded by fog and speaking in an echoing boom whisper, a ghost seeming to be flowing right out of Hamlet's fog machine brain. But 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 that annoying kid who comes back from Burning Man or the Rainbow Gathering with dreadlocks, a dour but smokin' hot activist girl's 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. Mel's Hamlet, crying "like a whore" and unpacking his heart with words (and pamphlets) rather than direct and violent action (blowing up a factory), 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 whales of the world. Even if he pounds his plodding pen to plastique it would explode no illusion beyond popping the proud bubble of his own inchoate solipsism.
And in this analogy: the college drug dealer, drinking his way towards some chimera self-assurance, his each whiskey shot a fleeting but blessed deliverance from the dead father's terrible injunction, onus comes at a terrible price. He can't even make out with his mother in her bed for a hot sec before ghost dad's ghost pops up, dismayed at this halting of his son's bloody path. But dad, it's smokey!
In order for this all to become psychedelic though, it can't be told by the British, for the Royal Shakespeare Compan are too established and respectful (albeit not quite as drab or 'experimental' as America). Having nothing to prove, neither Italian Zeffirelli or Australian Gibson are inclined to be at all pious and restrained with this material. Their Hamlet is 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, broh?). In typical Zeffirelli style, the dusky David Watkin cinematography uses natural light streaks sparkling with floating castle dust in real, dusky straw and stone locations.
Then, even better, maybe best of all, the at-first-unrecognizable, Ennio Morricone comes laying down a score that only becomes clearly his own (via wordless swooping Marni Nixon-esque top notes) only in mom's boudoir, which makes sense as it's such a giallo miasma of murder (stabbing through works of art), Freudian Oedipal insanity, vows of secrecy, maternal guilt, ghostly accusing, and existential alienation. It's a great scene: Glenn Close--despite the tightness of her hippy braids--makes a subtly unhinged queen, following her son's madness like a light off a cliff in the dark, her voice dropping octaves as the horror of the thought her dead husband is in the room, or that her son is about to kill her, or make out with her. Like Ophelia, she follows 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, Syracuse's Oakwood Cemetery, is where I and my clique of fellow SU sophomores first shroomed (and then shroomed regularly) as college kids 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 later on that week we read that 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. The morning/afternoon 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 (though I talk about her endlessly on this blog) saw the broken-in tomb and HB Crouse's 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). but then she stopped me... and a day later we read about this idiot (above) getting kicked out of school. I had thought the same thing, get in there, get the skull, boil the parchment 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 nameless crystal blue-eyed 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 since they never need to develop the wits (frail as an old man's life) by which the lesser mortals up their appeal, they don't. 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, to Seattle. 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 version of Hamlet 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 unthinking vengeance. He should have chained Claudius's foot to a car about to explode and left him with a hacksaw and five minutes on the clock, like he done did to the Toecutter!
In between TV access (my dad watched a lot of golf, baseball, and football), I smoked and drank in my parents' dark cellar and wrote this girl endless letters. Only decades later did I realize how easy true love is when so one-sided and far away. On Facebook, I see she's married, she's old, her hair gone wild gray; she's dowdy like an Anna Magnani. But in 1990--ah, she was still so hot--I wrote her such letters from my boomerang ensconcement down in that troll king basement as would wilt the most iron rose to mulch. 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, and then I had my first and only 'white-hot rage' moment - which is like you literally go blind - it's like your eyes become a TV that goes to popcorn static. I felt myself lunge towards her as if to strangle her, and then snapped out of it. Funny how you hear these phrases 'temporary insanity', 'white-out', 'white-hot rage' and just think they're prosaic.
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 in Carmel, NY; 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, the mom counting my drinks on a note pad. They worried I was a drunk... or rather, they 'found out'. The dad though, was delighted as well, to have an excuse to drink so much. His father had a problem too, and when that old man would do shots with me later at our graduation party, I'd catch shade about it, as grandma had to clean the sheets the next morning, for his bladder was not strong as a young man's wits.
I mention all this, why? For it all 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 was legions better than Olivier's super short and creepy uber-short blonde bangs. Mel has bangs too, but they fit cuzza the beard, and his wild man eyes.
As for the recent anti-Semitic deep end of Mel; well one can't play crazy as well as he does unless one is crazy to start with, which is the problem with so many British interpretations--Brits ain't crazy like Australians, even those born, like Mel, in the U.S. As if the role's too much for him, normal Gibson--early Mel--seems overwhelmed and weakened by the flowery language, but then the deep end beckons, when it's time to go big, Mel dives in. Splash. His Hamlet's obnoxious, the type you never want to go out and see movies in the theater with, because he's always shouting "this is the part where..." But he's brilliant and legit crazy, and a man who can be legit crazy onscreen is worth a thousand spoilers off it.
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 fairy photography! Watson, the needle... is dusty. The charm's unwound, so wind it up, and patch thy wounds with wondrous strange sounds. We will speak further... in the past.
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.