Macbeth (1971)
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Macbeth (1971)

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It is not at all unusual to experience a cathartic reaction while watching a film. This appears to be especially true in the central theme of the story is something that you can feel on a very deep, visceral level, but are unable to fully manifest in reality. Story centering on violence and revenge are often cited as excellent examples of this phenomenon. You might want to follow in Bernie Goetz’s footsteps and lash out at criminals, but your respect for the law fear of incarceration holds you back. Yet, watching Charles Bronson brutally assassinated criminals running the gamut from street punks organize mobsters, provides a cathartic outlet for those feelings in the safety of your home or movie theater. We don’t often consider is whether or not a cathartic motive was behind the filmmaker’s decision to make a certain film, or the stylistic choices he makes while directing it. In 1971 master class director, Roman Polanski, took on one of the great Shakespearean tragedies of all time, Macbeth. If you are prone to follow the theatrical superstition concerning the utterance of the play’s title, feel free to substitute; ‘The Scottish Play’ or ‘the ‘Scottish Lord’, in the appropriate places. Just two years prior to the release of this film is the Polanski suffered an unimaginable tragedy in his own personal life. Members of the infamous Charles Manson cult burst into his home in Los Angeles and gruesomely murdered his wife, actress Sharon Tate and a number of their friends. Ms. Tate was 8 ½ months pregnant at the time and the atrocities inflicted on her, her unborn child and the other people in attendance remains one of the most infamous crimes in American history. Polanski was in Europe at the time, but rushed back home. Although all the projects were present, he did not direct love the film until this one. It is unimaginable to consider the state of mind Mr. Polanski was in, but it certainly influenced the style of this interpretation of the play and undoubtedly provided a cathartic release for man suffering extreme grief.

Polanski was part of the artistic and intellectual elite that frequented the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles. As such, he was good friends with Playboy’s founder and owner, Hugh Hefner, agreed to finance the project after Polanski was declined by the mainstream Hollywood studios. With the assistance of friend and noted British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, Polanski set about to reinterpret Shakespeare’s work into one of his own tormented vision. There has been some critiquing this variation of the play that has complained about the changes that were incorporated. Polanski concluded the story. While the play was never known for an upbeat conclusion, the ending utilized by Polanski has been considered exceptionally bleak and deviating substantially from the original by repeating a visit to the three witches from the opening. Upon viewing it, I could see artistic merit to the decision, especially in light of the filmmaker’s frame of mind. The world is full of violence, deception and blind motivation that are set in an endless cycle constantly repeating. Other notable changes that have fixed Shakespearean purists are the alteration of famous soliloquies into internal monologues. This is a case where I can understand both sides. Within the context of a play performed live on stage, the only way the playwright has to externalize the thoughts of the character was for him to express them out loud, most frequently with no other characters present. As a filmmaker, Polanski had another viable method to achieve the same effect. Remove the speech directly from the character and feature it as existing in his mind. I see this is just a stylistic choice and one that does not alter the power of the words, really, how they are presented. This play has been one of the most frequently reinterpreted of Shakespeare’s folio. It is even been noted that has been interpreted to the actions of the California outlaw motorcycle gang. The genius of William Shakespeare is that his themes are so innately human that they span the centuries and are highly conducive to be reinterpreted with each generation through the eyes of their own experience. Considering the dark place, the filmmaker was in at the time of this project, it is highly likely that he was expressing his own inner dialogue.

Another major difference is the inclusion of nudity in the play. Lady Macbeth has a sleepwalking scene completely devoid of clothing. While such a thing would be unthinkable in Shakespeare’s time, and in fact, most presentations of the play, it was completely consistent with the sexual revolution and its effect on the cinema. Some have pointed to the involvement of Playboy. As the major influence for this stylistic decision, I have to disagree on this point. Like many directors of the time, Polanski was not one to shy away from violence or sexuality. His late wife was considered a rising sex symbol, including a photographic feature in Playboy. From Polanski’s point of view, as expressed here in the film, the play is reduced to in the actual expression of the Id. In fact, Playboy magazine had a regular feature: ‘Sex in the Cinema’, that highlighted movies that were pushing the envelope regarding sex and nudity. Subsequent to the so-called ‘Summer of Love’ in the late 60s, social mores were in the process of actively changing to a formal liberal view of the human body and sexuality. Few would argue that this play was not highly sexually charged. It has been woven into the very fabric of the story from its very inception. One of the most popular changes done to bring the play into another time period, the expression of sexuality is near the top of the list.

The comments pertaining to sex and nudity in this rendition of the play is also applicable to the presentation of violence. The play is well-known for its murders and little backstabbing, as well as an introspective view of death. Polanski has amplified the violence, removing any innuendo in favor of explicit the depiction. Once again, this is been a consistent change found in the films of the time. In 1969, renowned filmmaker, Sam Peckinpah released ‘The Wild Bunch’. This movie represented a major departure from the sanitize violence typically seen in movies, especially westerns. One person pulls out his six shooter and pumps several bullets into his adversary. The recipient of the bullets grimaces and grabs his belly as he falls to the ground. The filmmakers like Peckinpah felt that this was the wrong way to depict violence. In his famous western who could see the blood and agony inherent in being shot to death. The 60s and 70s was a time of unflinching realism being infused into film. Polanski merely did his part in embracing this trend. As noted before, great classics of literature such as Shakespeare’s plays, the man to be reinterpreted through the viewpoint of the current generation. Not only is the violence and sexuality depicted here. Consistent with other films of the era, this interpretation realistically embraced the social standings of the day. In this particular instance, not only did the changes represent the time but was an expression of the filmmaker’s extreme inner turmoil and angst. When a director/screenwriter takes such a personal investment in telling the story, it becomes far more powerful than ever. By taking one of Shakespeare’s most intense tragedies and filtering it through such horrific personal experience, the result remains incredibly powerful and is able to transcend the passage of time. This latest release on Blu-ray is the induction of the film into the much lauded Criterion Collection. Ever since the brief period of laser disks, this set of film releases has included some of the most influential movies in the artistic expression of the medium. Part of their mandate is to present the movie as close to the original vision of the filmmaker as possible. This explains the unusual audio track of DTS-HD MA 3.0, which limits the sound field the two front and center speakers. This is how most theaters would have displayed the film. As to be expected from a Criterion release is an exceptionally rich inclusion of additional material augment your understanding and appreciation of the film.

bulletNew 4K digital restoration, approved by director Roman Polanski
bulletToil and Trouble: making "Macbeth," a new documentary featuring interviews with Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes, and actors Francesca Annis and Martin Shaw
bulletPolanski Meets Macbeth, a 1971 documentary by Frank Simon featuring rare footage of the film’s cast and crew at work
bulletInterview with coscreenwriter Kenneth Tynan from a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show
bullet"Two Macbeths," a segment from a 1972 episode of the British television series Aquarius featuring Polanski and theater director Peter Coe
bulletTrailers
bulletPLUS: An essay by critic Terrence Rafferty

Posted 11/19/2014

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