Monday, May 21, 2018

Eating Shakespeare

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2000)

Sometimes the shape of the room depends on where you came in. I started making a serious habit of sneaking into 18-rated movies (or X-rated, as they were at the time) in the early 80s. This was before video really came in, and you’d seldom see a mature film on British television that wasn’t cut in one way or another (I remember that Chinatown, for instance, was broadcast without the scene in which Jack Nicholson gets his nose knifed, entailing that he suddenly just turned up wearing an unexplained bandage), so this was major new territory for me. I remember every one of them as a distinct exotic exploration. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was the first (even then, obviously, I didn’t follow the crowd), and it only added fuel to my enthusiasm despite its disastrous reputation. Ken Russell’s Altered States was the second. I’ve watched that movie four or five times again since then, and it seems sillier every time, but to me nowadays it’s like visiting a declining mentor in his hospital bed; you sit and smile and remember the better days.

Paul Bartel

Another of my earliest expeditions into the X-rated movie was Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, a 1982 black comedy who take up murder and cannibalism. The film was well received at the time, and seemed likely to be Bartel’s stepping-stone out of B-movies into broader acceptance. But he never really followed through. His last movie of any note (and then not much) was Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, made in 1989. More lately, he was seen here and there in tiny acting parts. He died the other week, and I doubt the obituary meant much to most readers. But reading it, I experienced the same heavy-hearted thud that accompanies the loss of a thriving career – no more Paul Bartel films, I thought to myself, as though we’d lost Robert Altman or Mike Leigh. Because his brief moment of relative glory coincided with my own awakening, I guess Bartel was always a prominent filmmaker to me. And this despite the fact that I haven’t bothered to see Eating Raoul again in the intervening eighteen years. It’s disconcerting, when the inner child suddenly kicks like that.

The death I should have mentioned, I suppose, was that of Sir John Gielgud – obviously a much more estimable figure than Paul Bartel overall (although, in a reversal of the way obituaries usually work, I don’t think I ever read as much criticism of Gielgud as I did after his death – all ringing tones and no passion, was the common rap). A few commentators noted (to no particular end) that Shakespearean stalwart Gielgud died in the same week that Michael Almereyda’s contemporary version of Hamlet opened here. But the odder echo for me came from Bartel’s appearance in the climactic scene. Looking embalmed and distant, he had but one line – “A hit – a palpable hit.” Taken out of context, that might not seem like such a bad exit line for a film director.

Michael Almereyda

If I’d thought about it, Almereyda might have seemed until this year to carry every likelihood of dwindling away in Bartel-style. Some of his films, like the vampire movie Nadja, had points of interest, but not enough to sustain even the flimsiest of legends. In fact, Almereyda was best known for his odd enthusiasm for Pixelvision – a plastic video camera produced by Fisher-Price – a technology he’s deployed in several movies.

At the Toronto film festival two years ago, they showed a movie of his which was then called Trance (subsequently released on video as The Eternal). It starts off promisingly, depicting a New York woman’s slow alcoholic suicide in fairly raw and striking terms. But after ten minutes or so, the action shifts to Ireland, where she visits her ancestral home, occupied by a wacky (naturally) Christopher Walken and an ailing aunt or granny – I forget which. I recall watching through escalating layers of dense exposition and strained mythology and being utterly baffled as to the nature of the artistic merit that got the film through the festival selection process. It’s too idiosyncratic to be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill potboiler, but that’s not synonymous with having much merit. Anyway, the film was barely heard of after that, which seems about right.

But Almereyda really turns things around with Hamlet I think. The film reinvents the Denmark of Shakespeare’s play as a “Denmark Corporation” based in New York, and translates its brooding characters into an environment of modern-day corporate skullduggery; it locates “to be or not to be” in a milieu of brand names and modern architecture. Almereyda’s almost ideal cast includes Ethan Hawke, San Shepard, Julia Stiles and Bill Murray. He brings the film in at under two hours. This all sounds pretty smart, if you assess it as you would at a pitch meeting.


I enjoyed some scenes of Hamlet as much as any Shakespeare I’ve ever seen on film. I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, so I can’t comment with much authority on where Almereyda’s transcription stands in the pantheon. It never seemed to me that his approach yielded any specific insight into its contemporary setting. And one doesn’t need to be a purist, I suppose, to take the view that “To be or not to be” would be better presented “straight” than (as it is here) on a video screen, by a Hamlet holding a gun to his own head. And yet, for the uninitiated (or to put it another way, for those who were brought up on Paul Bartel rather than on Gielgud), the presentation, even if it’s a little overwrought, does illuminate the subtext.

But that approach runs the risk of Hamlet for dummies. The real miracle of the movie for me is how enthralling it is even when it’s played relatively straight. Bill Murray, for example, doesn’t have much support during his scenes, but he’s quite terrific, rendering his speeches entirely clear and enthralling and naturalistic. True, there were also major stretches which rather went past me (I’ve never had the courage, incidentally, to tackle Kenneth Branagh’s four hour version from a few years ago). But if nothing else, Almereyda’s film is surely a serviceable introduction to the play. I actually thought about seeking out the original text. Especially perhaps during those few seconds when Bartel was on screen, as somber as though foreseeing his own demise; as though numbed by the knowledge that his few aficionados would shortly move on to something more substantial.

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