Perspective : Olivier’s Hamlet

It’s lunch.  So I popped in the last of my newly borrowed movies – Olivier’s Hamlet.
Here’s the thing, and whether it says something about Olivier or about Hamlet, I don’t know – but I opened up *randomly* – in this case, the scene just after “Give me some light” where Polonius tells Hamlet to go see his mother.
And you know what? It’s absolutely f^&*()ing brilliant. 
I have not seen this movie since senior year in high school (over 20 years ago) when Mr. Corey made us watch it.  My memories of it then are boring voiceovers, no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and a relationship with Mom that made Mr. Corey pause the movie and remember to mention the whole Oedipal theory to us.
Maybe it is not saying something about Hamlet or Olivier at all, but about my own changed perspective.  I’m sure that 20 years ago I was thinking “When is this movie over?”  Five minutes ago, after 10 seconds of this exact same movie, I was thinking “I want to hear every single word, catch every single facial expression, contemplate every single directorial choice.”  The way Hamlet just stops in mid conversation, points off into space and does the whole “Do you see yon cloud in the shape of a weasel” bit, the patronizing look on his face is wonderful, like “You stupid old man, how can you not possibly see that I see right through you?”  I wouldn’t have been surprised if Hamlet at that moment said, “Do a little dance for me, Polonius” just to watch the old man bust a move.
I was optimistic about the Welles movies because I’d never seen one, whereas I was dubious about Olivier because I had 20 year old memories of it being dull and boring.  Funny how things change.

The 5 Minute Orson Welles

Ok, well, the same source that got me a peek at Chimes At Midnight also got me a chance to see Welles’ Othello and Macbeth.  Hence my earlier post on your best 5 minutes – I don’t have nearly the time to sit down and patiently watch all of these things.  It would take me days, and even then, I’d feel like I was rushing and not doing them justice.  So instead, at least for now, I skipped around a bit 🙂
For Othello, I can see much clearer what Alan meant about “the language of film.”  This one seems to be all about the statement of the filmmaker, moreso than any of the actors.  Opening with the funeral procession of Othello and Desdemona filmed in stark black and white contrast (I don’t just mean that the film is in black and white, I mean you’ll be hard pressed to find any shades of gray anywhere), the scene cuts to a criminal being dragged through the streets in chains.   The term “baited with the rabble’s curse” immediately came to mind as we watch Iago thrown into a cage.  Then, the movie starts.
I skipped a bit in the beginning – the quality of the film is poor.  Dark, poor sounds, and lots of skips and splices.  I guess I like Welles’ as Othello, physically.  I mean, he’s a guy in blackface wearing some sort of a turban.   What else can you say?  He’s not really putting on any kind of an accent or anything.  He looks like a Shakespearean actor doing his lines.
Desdemona’s death scene was weird for me, like something out of a Frankenstein movie.  Shots of her asleep (pretending to be, rather) in her chamber are interposed with shots of Othello approaching from far down the hall, giving this very empty feeling like they’re the only two people in the entire castle.  I certainly wouldn’t want to sleep there.  Interestingly, when Othello enters Desdemona shuts her eyes, pretending to be asleep.  I realize I skipped right to this part, but is she already afraid of him?  That was unexpected.  The scene overall I was disappointed with.  Like I said, it was like two people speaking their parts.  Desdemona did well at first when she stood up for herself, demanding that Cassio be brought forth to answer for the charges.  But when it came time to actually kill her, she didn’t put up any real fight at all.  Nor did Othello look like he was particularly physical, it was more like “And now’s the time in my soliloquoy when I put my hand over your mouth and you stop moving.”  I kept thinking of how much I’d rather be watching Stage Beauty.
His Macbeth, on the other hand, I think I quite liked.  It was a little jarring at first, as the armies look vaguely like something out of a Genghis Khan epic.  Macbeth is wearing a crown that makes him look like he’s the Statue of Liberty.  But the best part is that everyone is actually trying to speak in a Scottish accent!  You’d think that would suck, but to tell you the truth I got into it.  This was like night and day versus his Othello.  This was an entirely different Welles. Not only was he *acting* now, rather than just delivering lines, but he was acting like an entirely different creature.   I believed I was watching Macbeth, not Welles doing Macbeth.
Naturally I fastforwarded to my favorite part, the whole “lay on, Macduff” bit.  I was very pleased, because the scene played out not for the lines, but for the acting.  Macbeth looks at Macduff like a friend, warning him when he says simply “I bear a charmed life which must not yield to one of woman born.”  It’s like he’s saying “Dude, back away, you can’t win.”  He doesn’t scream it, he says it like a simple truth.  Macduff, however, never breaks form.  His blood is up, he wants Macbeth dead.  He only breaks free of their fight long enough to mention the whole “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped!” thing.
Want to hear the best part?  On the line “I’ll not fight with thee”, Macbeth actually *runs*.  I’m sure I’ve seen other Macbeths run before, but somehow I believed this one more.  He waltzed into that fight knowing that he’d win, and now, knowing that he’ll lose, he runs.  Of course he does.  So when Macduff chases him down and calls him a coward, the expression on Welles’ face is a thing of beauty.  It’s that “Oh hell no” moment where Macbeth finds himself again.  He’s no coward.  Death is not exactly something to look forward to, but oh hell no, he is no coward, he will not be dragged through the streets.  So it is with an almost smirk, a look that says “I know exactly what I’m doing” that he delivers a very simple, very quiet “Lay on, Macduff.”  It is with a great deal of resignation, is what it is.  Honestly it makes me wonder just how hard he was really fighting back.  When I’ve seen Macbeths charge full force back into the battle I tend to believe “Ok, he still thinks he can win.”  Here it was pretty clear to me that he knew he couldn’t.
Here’s my two sentence summary:  I will go back and watch the entire Macbeth now.  I will not bother with the Othello.

The Five Minutes' Traffic Of My DVD Player

Ok, here’s the game.  You’ve been handed the DVD of a Shakespeare movie you’ve never seen.  You’re also about to get on a plane to a foreign country and won’t be able to watch it for months because of regional issues.  So before you go, you pop it in and bring up your favorite scene, because you want to watch the best 5 minutes of the play. What play, and what scene?  You like beginnings, endings, or something in the middle?  You like a tragedy or a comedy?

John Penry There’s a name I’d never heard before : John Penry.  Executed in 1593, the “greatest protestant martyr of his land” is interesting to us for this little cross-reference:

The day after Penry’s execution, star English playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a fray whose timing some find a bit suspicious. Some enthusiasts think Marlowe faked his death and went on to write Shakespeare under a pen name. And if he did that, his confederates would have needed a body to pass off as Marlowe’s … the body, perhaps, of a man of Marlowe’s age and class who’d just been hanged a couple of miles up the road.

Indeed! 🙂

Want People To Think You're Well Read? If the only reason you’re into Shakespeare is so your friends see high quality literature on your bookshelf when they come over, here’s a solution for you. Book Decor sells “books by the yard” to use as decoration.  Seems like there’s something to be said here about judging a person by their book covers? (Note, books are not in English and I have no idea if there’s anything vaguely Shakespeare related in there.  You don’t get to pick the books, only the decorative style.) [Found via]

Romeo and Juliet : The Soundtrack This kid(?) had the assignment of creating a soundtrack for Romeo and Juliet (presumably the Zeffirelli version, since that’s the image he chose).  I like some of the choices, although truthfully I don’t recognize many of them.  Would have been cool to provide MP3 links, hint hint hint.   Oh, and “Romeo and Juliet” the song is originally by Dire Straits, covered by The Killers (among others). It’s not a Killers original. “Juliet, when we made love you used to cry, I love you to the stars above, I’ll love you til I die.” Good stuff.

Performance Envy

I wrote earlier today that “Words are timeless, performance is not.”  If the greatest performance of Hamlet was performed 100 years ago, what’s that to me?  I missed it.  Even today, the most ardent defenders of the “see it don’t read it” school still freely admit “Every night is different.”  So perhaps the best performance was yesterday, not tonight.  So sorry. Aha, but what about film?  Now we’re talking a whole different animal.  In a way it is simply the persistence of a performance.  You could, although it’s not done so commonly anymore, do a straight recording of a stage play.  Or you could, to put it mildly, go crazy.  The “language of film” (thanks Alan) is not my point.  I’m interested more in the idea of persistence, and the idea of not missing things. Rosenbaum’s Shakespeare Wars  spends most of its opening chapters talking about a 1970’s version of Dream by Peter Brook that changed the author’s life.  He raves about it.  He travels the world looking for people to speak with about it.  But you know what?  I can’t get into it.  Because I wasn’t there.  No amount of praise from anyone who was there will bring me any closer to experiencing it, other than to simply say “Wow, I wish I’d seen it.”  I have seen a good handful of Dream productions at this point, some good, some not so much.  The only real constant has been the text.  Each has bits and pieces that I like, but none had me stark raving. Compare film.  Have I seen what Orson Welles did with Falstaff?  Not yet, but hang on a bit……ok, seen it.  Yeah, that was good.  I can now have an opinion, we can discuss it.  I feel as if I’ve shared that experience with others.   And by others I don’t just mean others who have seen the movie, I mean the people *in* the movie.  I have an opportunity to feel what they feel, from my living room couch. A different example that I’m trying to hunt down is Olivier’s Othello, which apparently only exists as audio.  In trying to find the right words to do justice to Olivier’s performance Rosenbaum chooses not a line, not even a word, but a syllable within a single word – Desdemona.  There’s apparently a bit near the end, when Othello is wailing his wife’s name, that his voice cracked in just that certain way that encapsulated all of the hero’s anguish in one simple sound.  Had Rosenbaum been telling me this of a production he saw 30 years ago, I would at best be able to say “Wow, wish I’d seen it.”  But instead I find myself thinking “I wonder where I could get that?” It’s here that performance wins, hands down.  I agree completely.  I can know the words of the plays, but in my head I would never see the facial expression of Hal when he denies Falstaff, or the cracking voice of Olivier’s Othello.  For that, I need performance.  But I’m very jealous of performance.  Don’t tell me that I’ve missed the good stuff, I don’t want to hear that theatre is exciting because you never know what you’re going to get from night to night. I want the infinite beauty and depth of what it means to be human.  Maybe I can have that on film, maybe I’ll get to see it live.  Either way, they’re both speaking the same words. So by studying the words I still get myself that much closer to the goal, even if I never get all the way there.  Know what I mean?

Shakespeare's Only Rival Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?  So asks Nigel Smith in his new book of the same name.  The title of this post comes directly from the article, in describing Milton:  Ever since “Paradise Lost” was published in 1667, Milton has been acclaimed as a supreme English poet, Shakespeare’s only rival in linguistic mastery. Yet even at the height of his prestige, in the 18th century, Milton never inspired the kind of ardent intimacy that readers bring to Shakesepare. Nor is it simply our lazy generation, unused to reading long poems and deaf to the majesty of Milton’s artifice, that has relegated “Paradise Lost” to the seminar room. Even Samuel Johnson, in his “Life of Milton,” wrote that “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.” The article goes on to point out that apparently no, Milton is not better than Shakespeare, as the book really ends up being more of an introductory piece on the current issues in Milton scholarship.

Who Killed Marlowe?

So an anonymous poster found an old post of mine entitled Who Killed Christopher Marlowe? where he begs assistance: Here’s the thing,I’ve got an english project on this guy, this Marlowe fellow,and I want to know precisely how he died,and who killed him. can you recommend me a reliable source? you are Tht Shekespeare Geek after all. I could go to the usual Wikipedia and things, but I’m wondering if somebody out there’s a Marlowe Geek.  The best I’d be able to tell the commenter is the usual about Marlowe dying in a bar fight, and the theories about him secretly being a spy, faking his own death, that sort of thing. Anybody got better, more reliable info than me?