Review: Shakespeare 400 at the Cinematheque

If you’re anything like me you didn’t entirely appreciate Shakespeare in your school curriculum. You might’ve comprehended the cleverness in a dim way but you found it stuffier than a long-haul bus trip—you felt you needed something more urgent. Your adolescent sensibility wasn’t ready for such linguistic complexity, or for Kenneth Branagh. Then again, we’re probably nothing alike.

It doesn’t matter. Fortune shines upon us. The Cinematheque is screening Shakespeare 400, a colourful weave of Shakespeare inspired cinema. Sit we down! Our relationships to the work of the Bard might even change.

Film still from Polanski's Macbeth

Film still from Polanski's Macbeth

If you’re an enthusiast of spitting, face lacerations and blood-soaked teeth on the screen; if you’ll only accept sincere portrayals of vomit, decapitation, squelchy stabbings, floor grit and muddied garments, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) is for you. The gore is confronting. But the grittiness is essential. It grounds the audience in the reality of ascendancy of the era (of all eras?). The camera perspective establishes a parallel between the play’s original traitor and the Macbeths. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are often shot looking down over others, assuming the foredoomed elevation of opportunism. This emphasizes the Shakespearean theme of treason within and observable treason. Scruples expressed in this film are unnerving too. The Macbeths slip between exterior argument and interior debate. When Macbeth is hailed before the king, his eyes are those of a glassy doll’s, full of disbelief. We're privy to his brittle, dubbed consciousness. Jon Finch is a suasive Macbeth, but Francesca Annis steals the show as Lady Macbeth.

Film still from Welles' Chimes at Midnight

Film still from Welles' Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965) was a hearty contrast to Polanski’s adaptation.  The actors move in a lighter atmosphere, where insubordination is not so ominous. Chimes observes the companionship between John Falstaff (played by a pillow-stuffed Orson Welles) and Prince Hal in the King Henry plays—because who’s not infatuated by a raffish friendship that transcends class boundaries? At least for a while. The film’s capacity to conduct giddy word skirmishes is its strength, with the ricocheting edits following the flight of intonation and meaning in Shakespearean verse. Welles’ shaping of the speaker against shadows, structures, patterns and lesser characters is masterful, too. The shot composition alone merits a second viewing.

The bar for suspending disbelief was high in this. The obligatory scene of double-crossing in the woods is unconvincing. And swallowing the epic battle imagery and the Prince’s sudden pang of conscience is difficult after such acute dialogue. Be warned: the undulations of wit in this film require attention for sustained periods. But are you ready to be candid about personal excess in your life? This could be your tipping point.  The film’s allegation is that the exhilaration derived from the ‘Sherry Sack’, or any unchecked vice, will lead to inconsolable ruin. In any case, it’s a dainty entrée for exploring Welles’ world of Shakespeare.

Film still from Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho

Film still from Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho

After Gus Van Sant saw Chimes at Midnight he implanted several story drafts into a Shakespeare tale. Falstaff, Prince Hal and his travel mate are still on show in My Own Private Idaho (1991), but they’re modernized into physical relationships and carnal livelihoods. Mike’s (River Phoenix) broadened perspective intensifies the abandonment narrative. And because Falstaff gets less attention, he’s more enigmatic and tragic.

This oddball adaptation captures something of the ‘90s, but the grain still feels fresh. The reckless pragmatism of the hustler counterculture is an emphatic update on Chimes’. The hustler’s raw conversations—on the street, as squatters, in diners—are irresistible. Van Sant and the producers agonized over a pidgin blend of Shakespeare and juvenile slang. This balance taps into part of Shakespeare’s virtuosity. Language is illuminated as fixed and elastic.

There’s admirable patience in the takes. Curiosity for everyday objects and banality is encouraged. There are so many astounding visual ideas and hooks. My favourites are the finished portrait paintings that clients reject, the coloured inter titles that are vintage Microsoft Powerpoint, and the still montages that summarize sexual encounters.

Scott succeeds his real father and abandons his spiritual father for an upscaled life with a wife, while Mike survives alone with unannounced traumas rattling through his head. Mike’s narcolepsy structures the associative trajectory of the film. There are fractures in the narrative and it bleeds. They are stress attacks for reveries of better pasts. After one episode, Mike wakes up in Scott’s arms, beneath a statue that reads “the coming of the white man”. It’s the ‘90s. Traditional figures of authority and reassurance are collapsing.

Film still from Kurosawa's Throne of Blood

Film still from Kurosawa's Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957) starts with A-grade headwear and some entrancing lightning and forest mist. Two warrior chums ride around confused. You could watch the scenery for hours. You would expect armed conflict from one of the great practitioners of samurai cinema, but no. Throne Of Blood is less blood-spilling action, more blood-pumping dilemmas. The best moments involve the management of silence and levers of anticipation.

There are times where Kurosawa’s Macbeth seems sanitized and relenting to guilt, but in fact, he’s as brutal as ever. Washizu’s impressive portfolio of grimaces and cackles is proof. His demise is fascinating too, because it acquires a group perspective. Washizu shares the prophesy with his masses to inspire them to victory, but they revolt and slay him from below. He flounders like a tormented spider.

Another inventive deviation comes through Lady Asaji’s driving impact. It’s as if she’s fixated on rupturing Washizu’s friendship with Miki. The couple’s motivations and loyalties are tested in fresh ways. Asaji’s pregnancy is an original subplot that fails alongside the pair's campaign for power. A ridiculous siren blares at the revelation of the miscarriage. You can’t help but laugh in the cinema. But don’t forget—design by deceit is impotent.

Film still from Wilcox's Forbidden Planet

Film still from Wilcox's Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956) teams us with a unit of chipper white spacemen. They have impeccably combed hair, mailman uniforms and exalted technical flair. The desert planet they’re on is a great 2D landscape, illustrated like Cappadocia, Turkey. There’s a fusing of early sci-fi film design and ideas about hyper-advanced technology. It’s gorgeous paradox, like a DJ mixing sounds from a dial-up modem and sheet metal.

Forbidden Planet is The Tempest set in deep space and deep future, but sometimes it seems like it’s only to borrow the father-daughter setup. Altaira has never seen another human being because Morbius has her secluded. Her pristine naivety is the basis for all the slimy suggestiveness in the film. The male crew clashes as they vie to woo her and deliver her from ignorance. Altaira is as docile as the family robot, Robbie. Robbie the Robot is a cult hit. His appearances provide levity and flawless service. He can speak one hundred and eighty-seven languages, reproduce any material on the spot, and he’s meek. “A housewife’s dream.”

This would be a good film to drink to. It’s colourful and silly and not all that moving. But you need to be willing to forgive the consistently lame social politics of this ‘50s realm. The over-elaborate moral actually expresses a general pattern in the Shakespeare 400 films I’ve seen. It distills the harmful consequences that accompany courageous determination.

Film still from Zefferelli's Taming of the Shrew

Film still from Zefferelli's Taming of the Shrew

Franco Zefferelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) embeds us in the pre-semester excitement of a university town. This enthusiastic setting founds the characters’ desires more lucidly than in the play. Passion is spontaneous and uncomplicated here. Lucentio spots Bianca and chases her with abandon. Tranio breaks the fourth wall and asks, “is’t possible?” to fall in love by sight. Why not? This is a funny ‘battle of the sexes’ film, no?

Liz Taylor plays Katherine with aplomb. She views the world through the slithers of her window, but she’s shut in mostly by choice. She wants a mate, but first she’d like someone, man or woman, to properly listen and not treat her like an infant. This film never warrants that. Every grievance is dismissed as inborn hysteria, so she provokes others and destroys household objects. The camera catches her from oblique angles because her medusa glares are too strong.

Enter Richard Burton, the co-producer and star. He’ll break the shrew! His Petruchio is dominant, in an outstandingly yucky way. He’s the embodiment of brute vanity and he doesn’t change or learn a thing. He prides himself on flagrant indifference. At times it’s feels like an exposé on a prototype pick-up artist. If Zefferelli’s project was to show what is scary about modern projections of masculinity, success! Does his version ultimately efface a layer of criticism, or is it all implied? I still can't tell.

Film still from Olivier's Hamlet

Film still from Olivier's Hamlet

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) was a pioneering success, despite significant abridgements. The legendary cowards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were cut, though you could almost forget their roles. Olivier’s sense of rhythm—as actor and director—is just that commanding.  It’s a not a strict translation but it’s neat and evocative.

The film comes coated in a storybook aesthetic, which realizes the play succinctly. Stirring chamber music and an epigraph of Hamlet verse drops us in to the film. We glide around the interconnected spaces of the castle. It’s like film noir shot inside a doll’s mansion. The arched thresholds frame attention and mark the separations and movements of character. We first find Hamlet in thorough sass-pose. He’s at odds with the royal pomp, waiting like stone fruit. If you’ve ever seen Shakespeare delivered badly, you’re anxious here. Will this serving be overripe? No. It’s like Hamlet’s later speech to the actors is Olivier’s mantra. The smoothness shines through even Hamlet’s wavering. A quick study of the performances of Ophelia or Laertes emphasizes this.

If we’re enjoying Shakespeare at the cinema, we partly have Olivier to thank. Two other Olivier-directed films, Henry V (1944) and Richard III (1955), also feature in Shakespeare 400. Together they form a compelling body of Shakespeare on film.

In case you didn’t know, the scope for filmic Shakespeare interpretation is cosmic. There are straight-down-the-sword dramatizations. There are keen adaptations that plunder Shakespeare’s skeletons to express original visual planes and manners. From my perspective, a film like My Own Private Idaho shines in this showcase. It has the visionary ability to satisfy a Shakespeare stickler and a Shakespeare hater all at once.

So was Shakespeare 400 the good poison? I think yes. I sampled over half of the films and I’ve seen enough to follow up on all the films shown. It was nothing like the Shakespeare productions I remember from school.  This time, Shakespeare on the screen was juicier. Maybe it was the bigger screen and the sound system? Maybe it was the decent duty of hailing Shakespeare’s latest attainment—four centuries since death. Whatever it was, bravo Bill. Your work and even your death outlast.