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The “Tragedy” of Superficial Movie Reviewers Trying to Understand Classic Plays

This kind of thing probably does not bother very many people, but it upsets me, so I will indulge myself a little, you might find it amusing.

I am not a cineaste; that is, I appreciate good movies, particularly when they are well written, have depth to them; and after you see one of those, you are apt to think about it, at least the emotional effect, if not the story itself. But I am not someone who has a great appreciation for visual style or camera angles. I want a good story, compellingly done.

So there are the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen. I know that they are popular, and some of their films have gotten praise. They are considered to be masters of film technique, at least by a few reviewers. Some people, from what I have read, cannot wait for another Coen Brothers film to come out. But I cannot stand their films. I have seen a few, and I have found them to be self-indulgent, smirkingly silly; style without substance.

I don’t think that I have ever gone to one of their films, but I have seen all or parts of them on television.. I watched about an hour of “Blood Simple,” until it became so inane as to be unwatchable. I watched about forty minutes of “Barton Fink,” with the same result. I never saw “Raising Arizona,” but my brother, who has different tastes, and is probably more tolerant in that regard, said that it was the worst film he had ever seen. I tried to watch “No Country For Old Men, ” but turned it off after the Coen Brothers indulged themselves with a graphic thirty second strangling scene.

I could go on, but suffice it to say, that I now assiduously avoid anything to do with the Coen Brothers films. That is pretty easy to do. But now I see that Joel Coen, working separately from his brother Ethan, has directed a new movie. And unfortunately, it is his version of Shakespeare’s immortal play “Macbeth.”

That play was of course one of Shakespeare’s five Tragedy Plays, the other four being, “Hamlet,,” “Romeo and Juliet,,” “Othello,” and ‘King Lear.” “Macbeth,” and all of those plays, have been performed for 500 years, with the greatest actors on stage, or more recently and occasionally, on film. I have read “Macbeth,” several times, have studied it in school, and seen it in various movie forms, including stage to screen, where they film the play performed at an English theatre, and then show it as a film to a wider audience.

Not that long ago, I saw a version starring Kenneth Branagh; he was solid, though rather workmanlike, as usual. I saw one with Christopher Eccleston, who I thought was very good in “Doctor Who,” but not very good here, at least in the 40 minutes or so I saw, before deciding to leave. He said, “Is this a dagger that I see before me?,” as if he were studying an eye chart. And, while this was not crucial, they had an interview with the actor playing Lady Macbeth, shown before the performance, and she wanted to tell us that she thought that Lady Macbeth had possibly had four miscarriages, and that she was by no means a villain; which is ridiculous, because of course she is, though Shakespeare always gives almost all of his prinicipal characters, including the villains, some sympathetic aspects. There is no one definitive interpretation or analysis of any great work of art, but imposing one’s own political sensibilities onto it, is not warranted, when the text is clear.

So now we have Joel Coen with his particular interpretation of the play. I would not see anything by him, on principle, but it is an interesting juxtaposition. He has cast Denzel Washington as Macbeth, and his wife Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. It seems that he has taken the three witches and made them one character, though that was just from my reading of the review I am going to write about.

I am usually a purist when it comes to literature. I like the films or theatre versions to be very close to the sense of the work, if not literally exact. They can make them in modern dress , if they want; not my favorite thing, but understandable. They can do “color blind casting,” which I do not favor, but is pretty much the norm now. But don’t change the text or the characters in the play, to suit the director’s ego, or political position.

So I will not see this, because it is by Coen, but maybe I am missing something, and I have already seen some positive review headlines. I do think that reviewing of movies is coming closer to “hyping,” than writing an intelligent and nuanced critique. And I wonder if there are very many discerning and literate reviewers. I rarely read one, the kind that can even add to one’s appreciation of a work, point out the favorable aspects and the flaws; and only give a glowing review if something is really great.

That brings me to the real subject of my little rant, which is a review of this movie done at a site called “Deadline,” which I think is a place where various movies and TV shows are reviewed. Before that, I will just review Shakepeare’s actual play “Macbeth.” It is not as psychologically complex as “Hamlet.” Its power comes from the intensity of emotions, and the dramatic and vivid story which is told.

Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, is a military leader and warrior of high renown in medieval Scotland. He has just come from a triumphant victory in a climactic battle. He is traveling home with his fellow general and friend Banquo. They come upon three entities who we have learned are waiting for Macbeth. They are females, variously described as witches or “the Weird Sisters.” We know that they are bad, because one of them tells the others how when some woman refused to share the nuts she was munching on, with her, she now will destroy the ship captained by the woman’s husband, and of course kill him as well.

So these witches, variously portrayed in different productions (Roman Polanski had them played by children), greet Macbeth and Banquo, and hail Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, and “King to be.”They tell Banquo that he will never be king, but that his heirs will be. The two are amazed at these prophecies, Banquo urges his friend not to think any more about them.

But then Macbeth learns that the former Thane of Cawdor has been executed as a traitor ,and Macbeth is given his title. He is now convinced that the witches are telling him his future. He shares this with his wife, Lady Macbeth. She, having the determination and cleverness which Macbeth does not, essentially urges him to kill King Duncan when he comes to visit their castle for a celebration. He does not want to do this, and urges her to forget such thoughts. But she insists, tells him he must screw his courage to the sticking point, and, that it would be cowardly not to go forward.

Eventually, Macbeth accedes, though he has frightening visions warning him not to do it. But he does kill the king while he is sleeping; and Lady Macbeth, not liking the way he has described the scene, goes in and makes it look as if a drunken groom has committed the murder.

The rest of the play develops the implications of what the couple has done. Macbeth, who we were to see as a previously admirable character, albeit with ambition, develops into a monster, wanting to kill everyone and their heirs who might threaten his kingship.He ultimately realizes that the witches have deceived and seduced him. They told him to fear Macduff, and he avoids him, but has his children killed. They tell him to fear no man of woman born, and he thinks that means he is impregnable, but he later learns that Macduff was born through caesarean section, not from the womb. And he is told that he is safe “until Birnam Wood doth come to Dunsinane,” which he assumes is impossible, until Macduff’s army is seen to be carrying limbs of trees from Birnam Wood, as a strategical trick to make it look as if their forces are greater. At that point, he realizes that he is doomed.

He learns that Lady Macbeth is dead. The messenger does not tell him how she died, though later it is said that it is thought that she took her own life. He then says, in his hopelessness and futility, “She should have died hereafter.” I read that as “should” meaning “would have.” She died on that day, she would have died sooner or later. Then he says perhaps the most famous lines in Shakespeares’s unparalleled writing history. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“Macbeth” is a story of a man with some admirable qualities, who is seduced and then destroyed by the evil spirits, but of course only because his own flaws of character, and those of his wife, lead him into it. And once he starts down that road, he cannot turn back, and ultimately becomes dreadful. The play has some of the most intensely powerful language in all of Shakespeare. It can be seen as providing a metaphor for the human character, and how it can be warped into something evil,, if the tendency is already there. We see that in this era, of course.

So now here is Joel Coen, with his movie version of the play, starring Denzel Washington, who is a fine actor, but was not good in the movie by Kenneth Branagh of Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure.” There is a cadence to the reading of the iambic pentameter, and some are much better at it than others. Washington is probably better now at it than he was then, but he is pretty obviously a box-office choice, which hardly would have been the first time in movie casting, but there likely would have been better choices, if someone were actually trying to do a great rendition of the play. Some reviewer’s blurb said, “a stellar cast”: well, yes, Shakespeare is usually performed with a great cast, big names or not.

Okay, finally I will get to this Deadline “review.” I will not quote extensively from it, so as not to infringe on copyright, but a few lines are acceptable; after all, the movie ads always contain such lines from reviews, often excerpted to make the review look better than it is. See if you can decide if this reviewer, who is named, or called, Valerie Complex, actually knows anything about the play, or Shakespeare, or if she is a person who likes movies and writes about celebrities, and then saw this movie, and tried to figure it out. My reactions to the lines of this review are in parentheses.

“Director Joel Coen explores the consequences of war and loss through a fantastical, almost surrealistic-like lens…” (??? This movie sounds pretentious and wrong from the start). “He executes Shakespeare’s work in a way that takes inspiration from other adaptations of the play, while creating a version that is all his own.” (what adaptations is she referring to? “A version all its own? She has seen the other adaptations, or is this just fluff?).

“The soon to be king writes a letter to his wife, and with all the excitement of a little kid in Chuck E. Cheese, the lady is ready to make prophecy reality.” (The thing I hate the most about this growing style of online “reviewing”: the juvenile attempts to be clever or hip. The writers mostly lack much in the way of descriptive phrases, so have to use metaphors like this–for a Shakespeare play, no less). “He kills Duncan, is given the crown, and all hell breaks loose. (Ah, that is what happens? Thanks for summing it up. Actually, it doesn’t “break loose,” Macbeth causes it).

“Lord and Lady Macbeth are two severely mentally ill individuals suffering from more than thoughtless ambition.” (This is what she takes from this story, that they are severely mentally ill individuals?) “Macbeth is a general who has served in two back to back wars without a break, and possibly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.” (???? That is never implied. PTSD was only diagnosed as a disorder in the 20th century, although one could say that the symptoms of it long pre-existed that era. But there is nothing in the text to indicate that Macbeth is suffering from battle fatigue. Try to read literature on the terms the writer sets, not throw modern jargon or conceptions in, when there is no text to support them).

Okay, one more, and I will stop. “Lady Macbeth is a childless wife who just lost another child and is rendered infertile. With a chance to make themselves royalty, to distract from their _______ lot in life, why not seize the moment? Unfortunately, that did not turn out too well for the duo. ” (Yes, let us minimize this play by turning it into an episode of a bad TV show).

Well, just one more. “Coen’s work in the Tragedy of Macbeth is otherworldly. Every aspect of the production works in unison to execute his masterful vision of the Scottish play.” “Coen is doing fantastic work here. His version of this story is one of the few that zeroes in on the fantasy and brings this to the foreground.” (What fantasy to zero in on? What is she trying to express in that sentence? Why does she think that is is important to zero in on some fantasy, whatever that means?).

Well, she liked it, and that is fine. Others will, too. Many people want some razzle-dazzle in films of plays. But the essence of a great play, which Macbeth is, is the story and the characters and the language. Tricking it up with special effects is superficial. The reviewer didn’t learn much about it, if she comes away thinking that the Macbeths are severely mentally ill. That would cover any protagonist in any of the Revenge Plays of the Middle Ages, or the Greek Tragedies. Regicide was not uncommon back then.

I will not see the movie, so that is the last I will read or hear about it, except that it will likely win Academy Awards. Coen, Washington, McDormand; it often seems that this is how the voting goes in the celebrity awards, they are honoring the “name actors,” often the same ones again and again.

There is nothing I can do about it, nor about the Coens, nor about what people like in art. But I value the classics, and the timeless plays, and I want to see them done with respect and understanding, not self-indulgence. And it would be nice if there were more than a very few reviewers who actually knew the source material, particularly when it is one of the greatest plays ever written; and who could somehow refrain from making cutesy comparisons to kids at Chuck. E. Cheese. Does everything now reduce itself to banal cultural references or slang?

Okay, end of rant, for now. Thank you for indulging me. Did you know that “Macbeth” is the one play whose title must, by accepted convention, never be named by anyone in the cast or crew performing it, as it is considered to cause very bad luck? It must always be referred to as “The Scottish Play.”