Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet , from the tragedy by William Shakespeare, reminds me of nothing so much as the old lady in the Henry Fielding (1707-1754) novel who expressed her displeasure with a stage production of Hamlet because the play had too many old quotations. As the Bard’s zingers amble along on the soundtrack of Mr. Almereyda’s avant-garde transplantation of the Elizabethan classic to New York 2000, Shakespeare’s dramatic and poetic genius becomes a distraction from the director’s visual improvisations with all the updated media technology at his disposal. Though the state of Denmark-about which there is something rotten-becomes the Denmark Corporation fighting a hostile takeover by the Norway Corporation and its chief executive, Mr. Fortinbras, the American cast is still saddled with the original text, which means that the lines are read for the most part with more feeling for the angry-stepchild plot than for the iambic pentameter.
The old question arises: What is Shakespeare to cinema and what is cinema to Shakespeare? We have been told often enough that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be in Sundance with a script and a cell phone. Also, it can be argued that by jazzing up an old chestnut as if it were some sort of video game, more young people will become familiar with a great literary landmark of Western civilization. Yet as a reviewer for a teen-age magazine remarked, this latest update of Hamlet will never replace Cliffs Notes.
As for Mr. Almereyda’s claim to our attention as a low-budget innovator in the medium worthy of a retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives, I must confess total ignorance of his past decade’s output that has caused Film Comment to lionize him as “indie-cinema’s best-kept secret.” Nonetheless, Mr. Almereyda, a bit like Woody Allen, has developed a talent for persuading interesting performers to work for beer-and-pretzel money. Hence, any project with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrude, Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Bill Murray as Polonius is not without some iconic anticipation apart from the inevitable derision to be expected from American Anglophiles brought up on the Knights and Dames of the British stage peerage. In this respect, unfortunately, I fully qualify as an Anglophile of the first order, and so I shall not waste time and effort reminding myself of the standard-setting epiphanies of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Richard Burton, Wendy Hiller, Celia Johnson, Vanessa Redgrave, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Margaret Leighton, et al., on stage and screen that I have actually witnessed. It would be too boring therefore to complain that Mr. Hawke’s Hamlet lacks the dark humor of Olivier’s and the extraordinary charm of Burton’s.
Though Basil Sydney’s Claudius in Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) is still the Claudius to beat, Mr. MacLachlan’s runs a close second for his originality in stressing the womanizing side of the character over the traditional pseudopatriarch. Ms. Venora tries hard to make new sense of Gertrude, but the bizarre staging of the big scenes defeat all her efforts.
Mr. Schreiber seems too levelheaded as Laertes to play the hothead, and Ms. Stiles still looks like a comer, particularly by keeping a straight face as Ophelia when Mr. Murray’s Polonius wires her for her meeting with Hamlet as if she were Linda Tripp.
On the whole, however, Mr. Almereyda has created some interesting effects with a wide variety of mirrors, screens and natural reflections, thus magnifying the central character by the sheer multiplicity of his likenesses in both real and virtual reality. The director is astute also with his deployment of paparazzi in the certification of today’s media mania over celebrities as the equivalent of yesterday’s crowd scenes under the balconies on which crowned heads waved and ruled for centuries. A more cynical reviewer than I might itemize also the suspiciously prominent product placements over the dazzling Manhattan nightscape. As it is, I still like to give struggling artists the benefit of every doubt.
The Lady Eve: Rush To Meet France’s Karin Viard
Catherine Corsini’s The New Eve ( La Nouvelle Eve ), from a screenplay by Ms. Corsini and Marc Syrigas, combines the buoyancy and high spirits of Hollywood’s classic screwball comedies with the sexual sophistication of the post-censorship era. One hopes also that The New Eve will introduce American audiences to Karin Viard, reportedly the hottest new star in France after Haut les Coeurs! , a harrowing but emotionally exhilarating story of a pregnant cancer victim who insists on delivering her baby despite the risk to her own life. This movie was shown at the recent Film Society French series, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2000 at the Walter Reade Theater. People in the know tell me that there is absolutely no chance of its being picked up for American distribution inasmuch as it makes previous American films on the subject look like Mary Poppins .
Though I deny the widespread rumor that I have abandoned La Politique des Auteurs for La Politique des Actrices , I must confess that the one-two punches Ms. Viard has delivered with the nervy comedy of The New Eve and the heart-wrenching drama of Haut les Coeurs! have hit me harder than anything since Greta Garbo’s hat trick with her gallantly smilingly, ill-fated courtesan in George Cukor’s Camille (1937) followed by her emotionally and comically vulnerable Bolshevik in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939). So rush off to see The New Eve , which can certainly stand on its own as sparkling entertainment, but I hope against hope that you will get a chance to see Ms. Viard in Haut les Coeurs! as well.
War Games: A Basketball Opera
Rich Cowan’s The Basket , from his own screenplay, resolves retroactively to plead for tolerance in a small Northwestern town in the midst of anti-German prejudice during World War I. How out of tune with the Zeitgeist can you get? A similar subject was treated as a subplot in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden back in 1955, but it is much more centrally located in The Basket , in every respect one of the strangest and most original films of the year so far.
The title of the film has a double meaning in that it refers both to the basket used in basketball and to the title of a made-up Mahlerish opera composed by Spokane, Wash., native Don Caron, and performed in the film by the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, and more singers, both solo and choir, than conductor Matyas Antal could shake a stick at. If you break through your instinctive resistance to a virtuous film overflowing with humbly collective good will, the rousing music is alone worth the price of admission, that and the fascinatingly detailed sequences of early basketball, with their emphasis on passing from a stationary position in what we now recognize as a half-court game.
The only “names” in the cast are Peter Coyote as Martin Conlon, a schoolteacher from Boston who introduces basketball to a small farming community in the Pacific Northwest, and Karen Allen, a farm housewife and Gold Star mother who stands up to her domineering and anti-German-bigoted husband who finally sees the errors of his ways and accepts two hitherto traumatized and persecuted German orphans, Helmut and Brigitta Brink, played by Robert Karl Burke and Amber Willenborg. Conlon ingeniously introduces what we now know as the zone defense to basketball, and it helps defeat the previously invincible big-city Spokane team. With the point spread, local farmers can finally afford to buy a mechanical harvester.
Oh, well, you get the idea, but I hasten to assure you that the movie is more pleasant to watch and listen to than you might expect and Mr. Coyote and Ms. Allen are in good form indeed.
May Movie Revivals: Arthur, Buñuel and Ophüls
The mantra for current screen revivals and restorations is A.B.C. for Arthur (Jean), Buñuel (Luis), and Conscience (Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity ). The illustrious Jean Arthur, 30′s and 40′s comedienne par excellence, is represented by three of her brightest comedies in Jean Arthur: From the Archives (May 13 to May 18 at the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1 at the Museum of Modern Art, 708-9480): George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943), and Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937) from a vintage Preston Sturges script. Also showing is Frank Borzage’s luminous romance, History Is Made at Night (1937) and Mr. Stevens’ Shane (1953), which, for all its virtues as a western, is not exactly Ms. Arthur’s cup of tea. While the debate rages on between her champions and those of Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck and a few others, mark me as undecided.
Buñuel’s Oscar-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is opening on May 12 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and is one of the most wickedly beguiling of the master surrealist’s collaborations with French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. A belated nod of gratitude is due also the YWCA Cine-Club (610 Lexington Avenue at 53rd Street, 735-9717) for its series of Buñuel’s Mexican films running through July 30.
Woody Allen is officially presenting Marcel Ophüls’ seminal The Sorrow and the Pity , which will run at Film Forum from May 12 to May 25. But those of you who have not yet seen this stirring cri de coeur on the painful subject of French collaboration with, and resistance to, the wartime Nazi occupation will no longer have to take Mr. Allen’s word for it. The Sorrow and the Pity is one of the must-sees of the last millennium and this one as well.