Justin Kurzel and Michael Fassbender Redo Macbeth

Thoughts on Macbeth and Movies

MACBETH            (2015)
Directed by Justin Kurzel
The Weinstein Company, 113 minutes, R (violence and brief sexuality)
* * * *

When I turned 50, I gave myself permission to dislike a bunch of things that "sophisticated" people are supposed to like: Bach, opera, Baroque art, ballet, and Shakespeare. This shocks some of my dearest friends, especially the ones who think Shakespeare is the very embodiment of all that is good and fine in Western civilization. I  have issues with the Bard—starting with the fact that a lot of the same intellectuals that scoff at Biblical literalists treat Shakespeare's every word as if it is sacred. They don't care about the staging–you can dress the actors in mukluks if you wish–but don't touch the prose. I happen to think Shakespeare was wordier than a slum full of Dickens. Plus, I don't speak Elizabethan—nobody does these days, except on stage.

My other big issue is that Billy Shakes was a terrible historian! Fine—his job was to entertain, not to lecture, but because his words have been sanctified, a lot of utter rubbish has come to be perceived as a true record of the past. Take Richard III, for example. Who actually knows that he was a decent king who was quite handsome, not Shakespeare's mincing hunchback? Of all of Shakespeare's slanders, the worst was his take on Macbeth. I'll get back to this, but first let's consider a new film version that hews the Bard's propagandist storyline, but takes liberties with the production in ways guaranteed to perturb purists, scene-chewing thespians, and directors more ambitious than Justin Kurzel.

Kurzel's Macbeth is truncated in several ways. First, a normal stage production generally runs from 2.5-3 hours, but Kurzel's film is under two. He has cut dialogue–quite a lot, actually, as he uses the medium of film to full advantage: facial expressions, smoky special effects, scarred bodies, brooding silences, sweeping pan shots, etc. that convey information in images rather than words. The film unspools at a much faster pace, but the crosscutting between speech and image actually tells the story with greater clarity and accessibility.

Kurzel hasn't altered the content. King Duncan (David Thewlis) is near defeat by Northumbrian enemies before skilled general and Thane (baron) of Glamis Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) turns the tide and saves Duncan's throne. A grateful Duncan bestows an additional title upon Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor, but a witches' prophecy unsettles Macbeth. They tell him that he shall be king, but that his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) will sire the line of future kings. Driven by poisonous ambition and the vainglorious prodding of Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth turns monster in an attempt to alter fate. After dispatching Duncan and frightening the king's son Malcolm (Jack Reynor) to flight, Macbeth subsequently arranges for the murder of Banquo and his son Fleance (Lochlan Harris), though the latter escapes via magical deception. As they say, things fall apart from there. Macbeth descends into madness, Lady Macbeth kills herself, and the tragedy ends in Macbeth's demise via a sword wielded by his main accuser, Macduff, the Thane of Fife (Sean Harris).

Macbeth is among Shakespeare's bloodiest plays, and Kurzel graphically depicts this. Violence is literally etched upon Fassbender's body: oozing head wounds, a road-map of scars, blood running as thickly as sweat…. Battle scenes are gruesome and Duncan's murder is sanguinary and grisly. Some critics have panned Fassbender for his mumbling delivery and exaggerated physicality, but I saw this as a way of placing Macbeth inside the Hobbesian man-against-man savagery of 11th century Scotland. Okay, he's not Olivier, McKellen, or Welles, but in many ways, Fassbender's primal Macbeth is more historical than robed figures delivering eloquent soliloquies. My only quarrel with the film is its sloppy elision of time, which so compresses Macbeth's rise and fall as to make it seem instantaneous.   

So let's talk about history. Shakespeare gets a flat-out "F" for his version of Macbeth. The real MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh (Gaelic for "son of life") did not murder his king; Duncan died in battle against the Northumbrians in 1040. His fellow thanes chose Macbeth king over Duncan's son Malcolm, who fled Scotland. There was some opposition to Macbeth's kingship, but that was the norm for whoever wore the crown back then. He ruled from 1040 to 1057, and no contemporary accused him of regicide, corruption, tyranny, or misrule. He too died in battle against a Northumbrian army, one led by none other than Malcolm, an act easily viewed as traitorous, which probably explains why Macbeth's adopted son was his immediate successor, though he was feeble-minded. (Malcolm murdered him a year later and took the throne as Malcolm III.)

Why such tinkering with the historical record? It probably had less to do with Shakespeare's need to find the proper vehicle for his clever words than it did with the fact that his patron was King James VI of Scotland (James I of England), who was descended from Malcolm III. In other words, Shakespeare was sucking up to his patron. Today we'd use words like "embedded" and "toadyism" to describe his actions. So I don't mind at all when someone edits Shakespeare.* They're unlikely to butcher the Bard as badly as the Bard carved up history.

Rob Weir

*Adam McNaughtan's "Oor Hamlet" reduced a 4 ½  hour play to a three-minute song. Brilliant!  


Caleb Carr's Surrender, New York a Failed Novel

Surrender, New York. (2016)
By Caleb Carr.
Penguin Random House, 624 pages.

There’s no reason to mince words: Surrender, New York is a failed novel—at least in the non-proofed advance copy I read. It won't happen, but Penguin ought to delay release of this book, assign a stern developmental editor, and advise author Caleb Carr to excise a few hundred pages and rework some head-scratching and totally unbelievable detail. It pains me to say this, because two of Carr’s previous novels—The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1997)—are high on my list of thrilling reads.

Both of the above featured the character and/or theories of Laszlo Kreizler, the namesake alienist of the 1994 novel. During the late 19th century that antiquated term referenced today’s fields of psychology and psychiatry, which were in their infancy and seemed to the uninformed as mysterious as spiritualism. Carr fashioned Kreizler as a hybrid of criminal profile pioneers such as Cesare Lombroso (1835-1903) and Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), with what I suspect was a bit of early Freud tossed into the mix—perfect for solving two Gilded Age serial killer cases.

Surrender, New York is the name of a fictional town set in equally fictional Burgoyne County, but in contemporary times. You can, if you wish, try to play the game of what the stand-in town might be, but all you need to know is that it’s three-hours north of New York City, within a reasonable driving distance of Albany, and that Route 22 runs nearby. Route 22 factors into the story as it is the artery that connects the Big Apple to rural New York, where local officials seek to track down a serial killer responsible for the deaths of several young people. A few local cops are perturbed by the direction of the investigation and call upon the services of criminal profilers L. Trajan Jones and Michael Li to assist them. The duo quickly surmises that the “murders” are, in fact, suicides, a theory that infuriates officials in Albany. Why? Because Jones and Li detect that the victims were “throwaway children” abandoned by their parents, but who seemingly made their way down Route 22 to the Big Apple and acquired the trappings of money. We are led to believe that New York’s ambitious governor, state attorney, and other Albany bigwigs would prefer a serial killer to an abandoned children scandal that might touch the rich and powerful. Find that hard to swallow? It is.

LT and Mike have to tread lightly, though, as they have no official standing and are, themselves, exiles in Surrender, having once been stars within the New York City Police Department before they got too close to blowing the whistle on powerful people involved in the man/boy sex trade. They rebounded by retreating to Surrender, where the Jones family has long been viewed as the local patriciate and LT’s aunt has a farm where he can den his cheetah—yes, we’re straying upon more illogical ground—and where the good “doctors,” who have Ph.D.s in psychology, can support themselves by teaching online courses for SUNY Albany on the “context” theories of—you guessed it—Laszlo Kreizler. Why Carr freezes the evolution of criminal psychology in the late 19th century is anyone’s guess, but fine. But I must ask this question: How much money does Carr suppose one makes teaching online? Let me answer that. It depends upon the number of students and the institution, but it’s in the $1,500 to $5,000 range—surely not enough to outfit the lab these boys have in the barn. Did I mention it’s filled with high tech links built into the converted hulk of a vintage Junker aircraft? Or that student protocol is to address an instructor as “professor” rather than “doctor,” and that both Jones and Li would have been fired in a New York minute if they humiliated their young charges with the language used in Carr’s novel.

Speaking of language, our highly educated doctors both speak as if they are escapees from a Mickey Spillane first draft, with a bit of teenage bad boy mixed in. We do get some profiler deductive reasoning, but mostly it’s a procession of “F” bombs and rants on why forensics is garbage science. In fact, the book’s number one takeaway is that Carr hates, really hates, CSI in all its iterations. Jones and Li would also be arrested for child endangerment if they, as in this novel, took in a 15-year-old assistant, allowed him to view an autopsy, and constantly put him in harm’s way. I suppose it’s pointless to suggest that this character, Lucas Kurtis, always speaks the way that 15-year-olds speak only in the locker room, yet somehow is capable of leaps of reason that elude most adults. Should I even dwell on the point that he too is a throwaway child living with his blind sister Ambyr? Or that Ambyr is gorgeous and that she and the one-legged cancer survivor LT develop a “thing?” Carr’s descriptions of their intimacies are embarrassing—not because they are salacious, but because they are puerile. Should we get into the ethnic slurs good naturedly exchanged between LT and his Chinese-American partner? (Is this banter, or just an excuse for Carr to be a bit naughty?)

Let’s not; it’s simply not worth it. Had I not committed myself to writing a preview, I would have ditched 150 pages in. The solving of the central mystery isn’t particularly clever or complex; in fact, I had most of it puzzled out before I hit page 400—complete with exposing the red herrings. Here’s the unassailable fact for which you’ll need neither psychology nor forensics to uncover: even good writers are capable of writing junk. Shame on Penguin Random House for allowing this one to get past the first read-through.



The Whimsical World of Bernard Langlais

Bernard Langlais:
Maine's Quirky Artistic Treasure

Are you heading to Maine any time this summer or fall? If so, keep a keen eye peeled for the art works of Bernard Langlais (1921-1977). They shouldn't be hard to spot. Thanks to efforts spearheaded by the Kohler Foundation and Colby College, hundreds of his works have been dispersed throughout the state, an initiative formally known as the Langlais Art Trail. Dozens of public libraries, civic spaces, parks, and art museums are sprinkled with his work and you'll know it immediately–its whimsy will bring a smile to your face and you'll embrace it without judgment of its artistic merit.

Cezanne phase
On that last point, one of the many intriguing things about Langlais is that he challenges preconceptions about art. Like most creative people, he went through the process of finding his niche. Check out an early Picasso and you'll find a man emulating naturalistic painters, and even his famed "blue" and "rose" periods are a mere patch on what he produced after he saw his first African mask. John Marin wanted to be an architect, then flirted with academic painting–until he went to Paris in 1905 and saw modern art.

Langlais similarly had to free himself from convention. He was born in Old Town, Maine, first trained as a commercial artist, but then went to art school, where he developed affection for Cezanne and Matisse. After World War II, he was back in Maine on a scholarship at the innovative Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, before heading off to New York, France, and Norway, the latter on a Fulbright stint that instilled a love of the paintings of Edvard Munch. His earliest works show him echoing many of his influences, a task he did well though hardly with great distinction. He
Inspired by Munch
enjoyed some success in New York, but grew bored with its art scene. (Contrary to legend, people can and do get bored with New York.)

In 1966, Langlais moved to Cushing, Maine, not far from where Andrew Wyeth summered. There he purchased a farm along the St. George River that needed some work, which rekindled his love of working with wood. He also discovered an unusual artistic inspiration: National Geographic Magazine. Wildlife photos held special fascination for him, and he began assembling fanciful 3-D images of animals in small and large-scale. Some are anatomically approximate, but most bear resemblance to folk art. That is to say, the highly trained "Blackie" Langlais–as he was known by locals–reinvented himself as if he were an untrained folk artist. For all of his schooling, Langlais is best known for a 62-foot carved Indian that stands in Skowhegan.

The ennui of sheepiness
For my money, Langlais' offbeat carvings—often fashioned from rough plywood—contribute far more to the art world than another Cezanne or Munch wannabe ever could. In academic discussions of the aesthetics of art, the word "fun" is too often missing. Langlais' carvings are chimerical, droll, and filled with wonder. In many cases, they capture the essence of the world of beasts far better than any realistic rendition could. (There is, after all, just so much a painter can capture in two dimensions.) Most of all, each work is handcrafted and unique–the perfect antidote for our age of mass-assembly cookie-cutter sameness. Seek Langlais' work next time you're in the Pine Tree State.

The photos in this piece were taken from an exhibition of his work from the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. Alas, that show closed at the end of June, though several of the sculptures continue to adorn the lawn. Those traveling to Cushing should definitely go to his studio, recently opened to the public. While you're there, go to Wyeth's house where it will take you all of about 30 seconds to understand his famed 1948 work Christina's World.

Rob Weir  

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