Sunday 10 December 2017

Defending Cinephilia (4) - Peter Hourigan explores the treatment of Shakespeare's HAMLET on film from a silent to the present

I’m going to interpret the title brief to cover what I could claim to have done to defend Cinephilia. I’ve just given a short course in Melbourne talking about film adaptations, to a general Adult Education group. I enjoyed sharing my cinephilia with people interested in just learning about more about the cinema.  And I loved the way it focused my thoughts in a little more depth and rigor than usual on some of the areas that make up the enormous mosaic of ‘cinephilia’

As well as the Movies, I love Shakespeare, and it’s fascinating to look at the enormously varied ways in which Shakespeare has been interpreted, adapted and used in the cinema. With nowhere near the time to look at all the adaptations of all the plays, I thought it would be interested to see how different filmmakers responded to the ‘Mousetrap’ scene from Hamlet, where Hamlet organises a performance to “catch the conscience of the King.”

Asta Neilsen, directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schell
I started with a 1921 German version (directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schell). What a masterstroke to add a prologue explaining how Hamlet was in fact a girl, born when the kingdom was in peril, and a male heir was needed.  This forces you to completely rethink all those moments when Hamlet seems to be vacillating, though it didn’t actually include a Mousetrap moment, so a bit of a false start here.  But a wonderful role for Asta Neilsen, and a chance to introduce the joys of silent cinema to people who’d rarely see a silent move. 
The blandest version was that of Laurence Olivier (1948) a pompous, egotistical actor more concerned with exhibiting his mellifluousness than penetrating a character.  It’s a good example of the ‘quality’ film that really has no personality. If you want to promote good cinema, an overrated work can provide an effective touchstone.
Kenneth Branagh, director and actor
Kenneth Branagh (1996) has more flair, paying full tribute to Shakespeare (the only version to film Shakespeare’s complete text hence its running time of over four hours) but imaginatively rethinking its time and setting.  Its pleasures are those of a good performance, if not an idiosyncratic or original reading, an example of how films can provide a good way of recording works from other media.
Ethan Hawke, directed by Michael Almeyreda
Then are filmmakers with real ‘cinematic blood in their veins’, like Michael Almeyreda and his 2000 version with Ethan Hawke.  It uses the Elizabethan text, but it’s running time is less than half that of Branagh.  He also relocates the play, to the headquarters of Denmark Corporation in the Hotel Elsinore, an ultra-modern New York building.  Claudius has connived his way into becoming CEO. Otherwise, it’s faithful to the original, in both language and spirit. Hamlet’s Mousetrap is a wonderful piece of avant-garde cinema using fascinating found footage – rewarding in its own right, as you’d expect with Almeyreda.  (You should also check out his Cymbelline (2014) with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan dialogue, dirty cops and an outlaw bikie gang.)
A strong Soviet version was made in 1964 by Grigori Kozintsev the wonderful Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet.  The setting is closest to that of Olivier’s, a comparison which extends to the Mousetrap scene. But it’s more than just its location.  More than any other version, here Kozintsev emphasises the social and political context, a state so rotten that the only person of any insight and integrity is powerless to respond effectively to the corruption he’s only too aware of. This version has perhaps the strongest sense of the social mire of Elsinore.  Hamlet is more than a man who “Thinks too much, rather than too little”, but helpless in this corrupt, bourgeois world.  A very Soviet era reading.
Almeyreda was not the first to see Hamlet as being appropriate to the world of business and corporations and big money. These don’t use the Elizabethan language, or set out to be reproductions of the play.
Hamlet Goes Business, directed by Aki Kaurasmaki
One is Aki Kaurismaki’s idiosyncratic and sardonic Hamlet Goes Business (1987). There’s lots of fun spotting incidents taken from Shakespeare, but also fun with Kaurismaki’s wicked humour – the family business here is manufacturing rubber duckies!  Hamlet has arranged a performance to ‘catch the conscience of the king”, but this is Kaurismaki, and he has a few more wicked re-interpretations up his sleeve.
Claude Chabrol ‘s version, Ophelia (1963) is also contemporary, with a rich bourgeois family living in a palatial country house. It’s also a reflection on how Shakespeare can be relevant to one person’s life.  Our hero Ivan is disturbed by the relationship between his mother and his uncle, and when he sees Olivier’s Hamlet at the local cinema, he has the idea to make his own version of the Mousetrap to see how the two react.  There are many parallels with Shakespeare’s plot, but Chabrol is telling his own story, and exploring his own world view.  It just happens that Shakespeare can be a rich way of doing this.
The third is perhaps the one I found most interesting.  It is Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Here is the act of creation as a director with his own clear ideas about his world, can sense how Shakespeare can help him explore and communicate those ideas. Again, we’re in the world of contemporary big business, and it is a deeply corrupt world. The events we follow are Kurosawa’s, not Shakespeare’s. The motivation behind them or the rationale for their inclusion is Kurosawa’s, but when there are parallels these semblances are delicious.  Think of how the ‘ghost’ is fully justified.
Then there is the Mousetrap moment.  It is not a play within a play, or a film within a film here at all. Such a device would be forced in this narrative.  It also comes at a different point in the story, in fact very close to the start rather than the middle. But it shows how an idea can be creatively realised by a real film maker. 
The film opens at a big (arranged) wedding, with Corporate Business more than love the motivation.  At the right time, the elaborate wedding cake is wheeled in. The guests applaud it (like a piece of theatre.)
"Then a second cake is wheeled in." The Bad Sleep Well directed by Akira Kurosawa
Then a second cake is wheeled in.  This is in the form of a large multi-storey office building recreated in cake and icing. At a window on the seventh floor, there is a flower.  For those with a guilty conscience, this is the window from where a former top executive fell to his death.  Suicide? Or was he pushed? The consternation among certain guests at the wedding shows their consciences have certainly been ‘caught’.  What better example of a cinematic imagination at work?

And what better example of cinephilia in action?

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