Lady Macbeth (Summer Film Log)

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Spare, dark, cruel, and unflinching, Lady Macbeth (2016) uncoils with an austere beauty that belies its dark core. Set in rural England in 1865, the film is the story of Katherine, a young wife essentially imprisoned by her cruel father-in-law and warped husband who try to confine her inside their drafty country estate.

Katherine would rather take her freedom in the fresh chilly air of the heath, but father-in-law Boris wants her inside, preferably laboring at creating a male heir, a task made nearly impossible by her older husband Alexander’s apparent impotence. Boris and Alexander use a housemaid named Anna to monitor Katherine, and when the father and son have to depart on separate business matters, Anna is left to watch over the bored young bride.

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Katherine’s situation becomes much less boring when, only a day or two after the departure of Boris and Alexander, she discovers Anna naked in a sack suspended from the ceiling of a kennel, surrounded by jeering men. Katherine frees the maid and asserts her dominance as lady of the house, even as she has to tussle with one of the men, Sebastian. The scene is utterly Sadean, a strange mix of sexuality, violence, and the thin veneer of social mores that glosses over the id writhing under the surface. The veneer cracks. Our Lady takes up a poorly-hidden (and then not-really-hidden-at-all) affair with Sebastian. To reveal more could spoil the story, but, like, you know some of the stuff that happens in Macbeth, right? Murders and stuff?

While Lady Macbeth recalls Shakespeare’s tragedy at times, it’s actually an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. (I read and enjoyed an English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky a few years back). Director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch offer a fairly faithful adaptation of Leskov’s story, although the film’s tone is much darker and devoid of Leskov’s black humor. The film’s conclusion is also darker and more concise than Leskov’s novella’s last chapters (and better, I’d argue). Lady Macbeth’s final moments offer a chilling indictment of Victorian morality (a moral vision that continues to persist in many ways today) without the slightest concession to a mainstream audience’s desire for, say, justice. The film begins dark and strange and ends darker, stranger. Watching Lady Macbeth is a bit like having one’s stomach squeezed from the inside out.

The film’s disturbing tension is not for everyone, but those folks would miss a fantastic performance by Florence Pugh, who plays Katherine with a sensitivity that is both captivating and menacing. One of the great successes of Lady Macbeth is watching Pugh perform a character who moves from emotion to impulse to action–or in some cases radical inaction—in a thoroughly naturalistic way. Oldroyd’s direction is key here; perhaps the most terrifying thing about Lady Macbeth is how natural the film feels. Cinematographer Ari Wegner seems to shoot the film almost-entirely with natural light (and occasionally gaslight), an effect that is simultaneously gorgeous and starkly unsettling. Lady Macbeth would make a perfect double feature with Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017). The film’s repetitions of interiors—often with Katherine staring out—readily recall Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi’s work.

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Lady Macbeth creates its own visual grammar to tell its story, deploying dialogue between characters with a spare efficiency that helps build the film’s anxious mood. Extradiagetic sound is virtually nonexistent in the film, too. A slow ominous rumbling swells up exactly three times in Lady Macbeth, matching and then intensifying the viewer’s nervous dread. The final credits play out over the sounds of birds chattily chirping. It’s all very disconcerting.

As I’ve noted (and which I hope is clear from this write-up), Lady Macbeth’s mix of strange Sadean sex and violence isn’t for everyone. It’s the kind of film that will likely disappoint or even upset many viewers—those looking for a Victorian-period romance should look elsewhere, and fans of straightforward horror might not get the tropes they crave. But folks interested in an unnerving but compelling story told on its own aesthetic terms should check this one out.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, somewhat late at night, at least for my wife and me. My wife loved it, by the way, and best of all, she loved it despite her usual rubric—she says she doesn’t like films where “nothing good happens.” Maybe something good happens in Lady Macbeth, but the good is so wrapped up in the bad that the two are impossible to parse.

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Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers — Henry Fuseli

Doré’s Ghost of Banquo (Ghost Riff 1)

It’s the disconcerting incompleteness of Gustave Doré’s The Spectrum Appearance of Banquo at Macbeth’s Feast that, paradoxically, creates the full, troubling effect of the picture.

“Enter Ghost of Banquo, and sits in Macbeth’s place” (Act 3, Sc. 4)—thus the stage directions from Shakespeare (or the actors who wrote down his words from memory)—and thus Banquo, draped, robed, sullen, taciturn, a marble effigy—but no, lifelike—no?

The Macbeths, shocked—Doré stages Lady M as a shadowy echo/support for Lord M—teeter aslant, Lord M’s left hand braced on the chairback that divides the painting—their faces, the Macbeths’ faces, wholly enshadowed (not wholly; Lady M’s nose peeks out in white silhouette); Lord M’s whole head a gravid mass of dark crowned with an incomplete crown, a broken circle.

Banquo’s eyes: Chilly, stern, accusatory, sad. And over them, thy gory locks. Do they shake at Lord Macbeth?

In The Life and Reminiscences of Gustave Doré, Blanche Roosevelt claims to have “seen no less than six sketches of Macbeth at the banquet, when confronted by Banquo’s ghost.” The biographer continues: “Doré was so original that it was almost impossible for him to repeat himself, even designedly.”

There seems here a condensation of repetitions. Doré’s control is to let loose control: Banquo’s robes are mummy wrappings unraveling: unraveling Lord Macbeth’s consciousness, even, I suppose. Squiggles, pulses, suggesting phantom movement, energy without depth. They unwind from his firm, marble visage—the look, the gory locks that shake, the chin that nods.

Cousin Ross has called out Banquo for his absence, which “lays blame upon his promise,” and of course this is Shakespeare’s big trick, the trick that Doré captures so well here—that Banquo is the most startlingly present absence, the most impossible absence, the absence that proves the radical uncertainty of presence, the present absence that haunts Macbeth, that silently affirms future ghostliness, attesting mutely that “charnel-houses and our graves must send Those that we bury back,” that “our monuments Shall be the maws of kites.”

“On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth” — Thomas De Quincey

“On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth” by Thomas De Quincey

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else; which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes. Of this out of ten thousand instances that I might produce, I will cite one. Ask of any person whatsoever, who is not previously prepared for the demand by a knowledge of perspective, to draw in the rudest way the commonest appearance which depends upon the laws of that science; as for instance, to represent the effect of two walls standing at right angles to each other, or the appearance of the houses on each side of a street, as seen by a person looking down the street from one extremity. Now in all cases, unless the person has happened to observe in pictures how it is that artists produce these effects, he will be utterly unable to make the smallest approximation to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day of his life. The reason is—that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes. His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear a horizontal line; a line that made any angle with the perpendicular less than a right angle, would seem to him to indicate that his houses were all tumbling down together. Accordingly he makes the line of his houses a horizontal line, and fails of course to produce the effect demanded. Here then is one instance out of many, in which not only the understanding is allowed to overrule the eyes, but where the understanding is positively allowed to obliterate the eyes as it were, for not only does the man believe the evidence of his understanding in opposition to that of his eyes, but, (what is monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave such evidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore quoad his consciousness has not seen) that which he has seen every day of his life. But to return from this digression, my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect, direct or reflected. In fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect. But I knew better; I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it. At length, in 1812, Mr. Williams made his début on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway, and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his; and, as an amateur once said to me in a querulous tone, “There has been absolutely nothing doing since his time, or nothing that’s worth speaking of.” But this is wrong; for it is unreasonable to expect all men to be great artists, and born with the genius of Mr. Williams. Now it will be remembered that in the first of these murders, (that of the Marrs,) the same incident (of a knocking at the door soon after the work of extermination was complete) did actually occur, which the genius of Shakspeare has invented; and all good judges, and the most eminent dilettanti, acknowledged the felicity of Shakspeare’s suggestion as soon as it was actually realized. Here, then, was a fresh proof that I was right in relying on my own feeling in opposition to my understanding; and I again set myself to study the problem; at length I solved it to my own satisfaction; and my solution is this. Murder in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct, which, as being indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation, is the same in kind, (though different in degree,) amongst all living creatures; this instinct therefore, because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of “the poor beetle that we tread on,” exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with him; (of course I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into his feelings, and are made to understand them,—not a sympathy of pity or approbation.) In the murdered person all strife of thought, all flux and reflux of passion and of purpose, are crushed by one overwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him “with its petrific mace.” But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of passion,—jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred,—which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look. Continue reading ““On the Knocking at the Gate, in Macbeth” — Thomas De Quincey”

Spectrum Appearance of Banquo — Gustave Doré

Siri Hustvedt’s Living, Thinking, Looking (Book Acquired, 5.15.2012)

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The whole point of these books acquired posts is to try to document interesting stuff that comes in before it winds up in my pile for months (to put things in perspective, I got a reader copy of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son back in January, and have finally gotten around to reading it just now). I usually spend a week or two looking over the book, maybe  publish a blurb or an excerpt of the book along with a photo, and then file it in one of three stacks — now, later, or never. Anyway, Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays Living, Thinking, Looking ended up never getting stacked anywhere, because I kept going back to it, poking into her essays on Goya, Gerhard Richter, Freud, reading her riff on sleeping, which somehow synthesizes Macbeth and Nabokov and REM science, pausing over her consideration of the Bush admin’s rhetoric. I haven’t finished the book but I will. Hustvedt combines her keen intellect with a range of ideas to explore her subjects (primarily, if the title didn’t tip you, living, thinking, looking). There’s a lot of lit here, a lot of psych, and plenty of art. Good stuff.

“I Felt an Irresistible Repulsion and Tedium” — Tolstoy Disses Shakespeare

From the beginning of Leo Tolsoy’s attack on William  ShakespeareA Critical Essay on Shakespeare:

I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me?

For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.

Tolstoy spends most of the rest of the (long) essay showing why he believes King Lear a terrible piece of literature. His rubric is of course terribly subjective, aesthetic, and perhaps ultimately rooted in his own literary mission of realism and social reform—but what I find most remarkable is that, despite all his claims to have read and reread Shakespeare (in English, Russian and German!) he never mentions actually watching a performance of the play.

I read Tolstoy’s gripes last night and felt the need (why?!) to reply, but found this morning that George Orwell already did so. From  Orwell’s rebuttal to Tolstoy, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool“:

Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy’s attack. The interesting question is: why did he make it? But it should be noticed in passing that he uses many weak or dishonest arguments. Some of them are worth pointing out, not because they invalidate his main charge but because they are, so to speak, evidence of malice. . . .

There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be “not guilty”. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of WAR AND PEACE and ANNA KARENINA.

At Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton Does Macbeth

Cartoonist Kate Beaton riffs on Macbeth. From her site Hark! A Vagrant.

Seven Films That Do Shakespeare Right

1. Titus (1999; directed by Julie Taymor)

Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s most overlooked plays, comes to lurid, gory glory in this late nineties adaptation. Gang rape, incest, and mutilation mark Titus as one of the downright nastiest Shakespearean works. Throw in a Thyestean banquet, and you’ve got the makings of a nightmare. The villain Aaron is on par with Iago as one of the bard’s greatest baddies.

This trailer makes the movie seem way cheesier than it really is. Trust me.

2. Romeo + Juliet (1996; directed by Baz Luhrmann)

Baz Lurhmann’s take on the ultimate boy-meets-girl story dazzles viewers in a cacophony of glitter and fireworks that captures the sheer silliness of adolescence–the real theme of Romeo and Juliet. Despite a myriad of critical naysayers, I believe Lurhmann’s hypercolor vision far superior to Zeffirelli’s 1968 version (“the one with the boobies”) so often thrust on high school kids. I actually used this version when I used to teach 9th graders. They loved it. I love it too, particularly John Leguizamo’s standout turn as Tybalt.

The first 10 minutes are excellent, if you don’t recall.

3. Macbeth (1972; directed by Roman Polanski)

Another one I show to my students. Polanski’s Macbeth is one of my favorite films, Shakespeare aside. Filmed relatively shortly after Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate was horrifically stabbed to death by the Manson family, Macbeth captures a forbidding spirit of bloody doom, sexual violence, and inescapable guilt. Beautifully shot and superbly acted, every other attempt has paled in comparison.

4. Looking for Richard (1996; directed by Al Pacino)

Wow. What a film. Pacino leads a group of thespians who try to reclaim Shakespeare “from the academics,” as one actor puts it. There’s a problem though: they’re not really sure how Richard III should go. This film captures the pre-production process for a staging of one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays, revealing a fascinating aspect of adaptation.

This clip sums it up much better than I could:

5. Ran (1985; directed by Akira Kurosawa)

Kurosawa’s take on King Lear proves that the work of one master can be translated into something new and marvelous when placed in the hands of another master. Ran transfers the Lear story to a feudal Japan rife with warring samurai. Ran is at once an epic action film as well as a philosophic meditation on aging, a commentary on gender roles as well as a study on familial duty and love. Again, a Biblioklept fave.

This is one of the best scenes in the film, or any film, really:

6. Henry V (1989; directed by Kenneth Branagh)

Branagh has given the world more filmed adaptations of Shakespeare than would seem possible for someone to do in one lifetime, and the man is still relatively young. That said, at times his work can be stodgy, if not downright plodding. Henry V is not for everyone. This is a very, very long film, and although the battle scenes are exciting, those unfamiliar with the play will no doubt have a hard time following it–particularly the scenes in French which lack subtitles. Still, if you’re studying the Henry tetralogy, or Shakespeare’s English histories in general, then there really isn’t a better supplement. In some ways Henry V is one of the most textually faithful adaptations of a Shakespeare play I can recall. Fans of Braveheart should also note that Mel “Sugartits” Gibson essentially ripped-off large sections of Henry V when crafting that turgid turd.

A famous speech:

7. Prospero’s Books (1991; directed by Peter Greenaway)

One of the Biblioklept’s favorite directors Peter Greenaway (8 1/2 Women; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) adapted one of the Biblioklept’s favorite plays, The Tempest, into a very weird, very surreal film called Prospero’s Books. As the title suggests, this is a movie very much about the act of writing itself (a theme Greenaway also explored in his unfortunate fiasco The Pillow Book); more poignant however are the themes of forgiveness and the letting go of the desire for revenge–aspects central to the original play.

Unfortunately, for some reason Prospero’s Books is still not available in DVD, and I have located no news of plans for that to happen any time soon. So, until that time, taste a little sample: