· 14 January 2022 ·
[Joel Coen’s Expressionist ‘Macbeth’]
It’s been ages since I looked forward to a new Shake-Speare film as much as I have this one. The Tragedy of Macbeth opened at Christmas in a small number of cinemas, but I signed up for yet another video service because as of today Macbeth is streaming there. I’ll probably cancel once I’ve absorbed the visuals. I already know the words.
The acting (Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand head the cast), the frame (1.37:1 aspect ratio, black and white), the photography (high and low angles, light and shadows), the homages to Welles, Hitchcock, interwar German cinema. All these are noteworthy, though some of us enjoyed them more than others. You can call this a review but it’s really a thank-you to director and (screen)writer Joel Coen, who won’t see it but I’m writing anyway. He has realised a spare, modern Macbeth that remains true to my language and intent. I want to hug him.
Coen sculpted my play to fit his vision and a brisk running time of 105 minutes. The stage is a sound-stage, exteriors are suggestions. Absence of colour emphasises the geometry of forms in the almost-square frame. Close-ups get close. The Macbeths are older, grizzling: their conspiracy is cold, not coital. I like it, it adds depth to their relationship and urgency to their ambition. We do this for ourselves, it’s now or never. Some of my lines are gone, others have been shifted like puzzle pieces, but Coen trusts the audience as well as the text. Everything still goes to hell in the end. Coen is no Nahum Tate, thank all the gods.
His crowning achievement may be to have rendered irrelevant the cultural complications lately welded onto my work, grab-holds for those who would pull it down. This Macbeth comes with no list of tickboxes. Faces are shades of gray, accents are numerous and individual, Scotland could be anywhere. None of it matters in the least.
A different story is told by Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 musical West Side Story. It’s not Shake-Speare per se but we all know its ancestor, another of my tragedies. Released two weeks before Macbeth after a year’s delay, WSS has as yet no streaming option. It cost several kings’ ransoms100 million U$ dollars to make; its first month could be described as a box-office tragedy.
My mind’s eye sees what Spielberg might have done with his own version of The Scottish Play.
Another vision of the deadly consequences of unbridled desire for power. Also shot in black and white, but
Schindler’s Lust. Coen might have missed a trick, there.
He made up for it by sitting down for a Zoom chat with Mark Rylance as part of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust’s 2021 conference.
Joel Coen (actor, screenwriter, film director, producer, and editor) in conversation with Sir Mark Rylance (actor and SAT Trustee) about the use of source material in the Coen Brothers’ films and in Shakespeare, as well as using Shakespeare as a source in Coen’s new film, Macbeth. Followed by Annabel Leventon reading a passage from The Scottish Play at the Shakespearean Authorship Trust conference, November 2021.
Please note, the image below is only a placeholder– clicking it will open the video in a new tab at YouTube. It runs a little over 55 minutes. It’s an insightful look at how Coen sees his films, and Macbeth in particular.Trivial pursuits in the Coen film:
- • A3 S1: There’s a spot where Washington turns a phrase into equestrian nonsense. Oops.
- • A4 S1: During an excitable moment, I suspect him of indulging his inner Muhammad Ali.
- • A4 S2: This might just be me, but Macduff’s castleOne of the few exterior shots in the film. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. at Fife rings a bellMy ancestral pile at Hedingham. All four corners had towers, originally..
- • Some how-they-did-it, as well as why: The Tragedy of Macbeth: Palace Intrigue [ascmag.com], with Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. If you have an Apple TV+ subscription, the bonus feature Crafting the Tragedy of Macbeth is worth a look too.
And I made it to the end without mentioning The Big Lebowski.
TO DIGITAL JAGGARDS AND BLOUNTS:
If you know of a First Folio-esque eroded typeface (TTF or OTF, file or files) that includes the punctuation and ligatures that this one doesn’t, and looks better than this one which I used above but isn’t close, please tweet or DM me a link. I’d be ever so grateful. It doesn’t have to be free, although Bess is several centuries behind on my subsidy. I’ll award you a battlefield knighthood, unless you’d rather have a limerick.
If you know how to make fonts and you want some work, we should talk because I have a wish list for regular and italics including proper bloody medial eſſes. If you don’t do Twitter ask a friend who does to be your courier, have them DM me your email address.
• An early post, only my third, complaining of the many errors in orthodoxy’s interpretation of Macbeth. I was rather grumpy when I began this blog, I needed to vent. Why Macbeth Isn’t About the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, posted on Guy Fawkes Day, 5 November 2015.
• Sir Mark (Rylance) called on his friend Sir Derek (Jacobi) to discuss the reasonable doubts about Stratford’s raison d’être, at the four hundredth anniversary of the raison’s demise. Two Gentlemen of Southeastern England, posted 25 April 2016.
• Near the beginning of his talk with Coen, Rylance mentioned the SAT’s founding in 1921 after JT Looney identified me as Shake-Speare. I’ve written about Looney’s seminal book in Oh Put Me In Thy Bookes (5 July 2016), and Limerick 3: Back In Black and White (18 May 2017). You can also find details, including a centenary reprint and an Internet Archive download link, at my library page, Learned Books.