Friday, 5 December 2014

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH - Review by Greg Klymkiw - The Bard of Avon gets a delectable Roman Polanski bloodbath via this gorgeous Criterion Collection Blu-Ray!

Macbeth (1971)
Dir. Roman Polanski
Scr. Kenneth Tynan & Polanski

Stars: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis

a personal memoir & review by Greg Klymkiw

My late mother taught me to read by the age of 5. She did it with comic books. Not just ANY comic books, mind you, but via the wonderful Classics Illustrated series which adapted great literature in comic book form. At the end of every issue were the words: "Now that you've read the comic, read the original."

When Mom signed up a couple of years later for the Doubleday Book-of-the-Month Club - not for her, but for me - one of the "free" (of four) introductory titles she selected was "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare". (The other three were Pierre Boulle's "Monkey Planet", AKA "Planet of the Apes", "The Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson" and "The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe".) Being a sick puppy even at the tender age of 7, I chose to read "Macbeth" first. Of all the Shakespeare plays represented in those comics, it was the one story that ferociously consumed me. As a child, I was Regan in "The Exorcist" and the devil himself was the Thane of Cawdor.

My sweet, darling mother painstakingly read the play with me, both of us taking turns reading aloud to each other and often alternating roles. Through this process we oft-referred to the Classics Illustrated adaptation and Mom even bought a "Coles Notes" book (AKA "Cliff's Notes") to address stuff she herself didn't "get", just so she could make sure I did.

At the ripe old age of 14 I first saw Roman Polanski's film version of The Tragedy of Macbeth which my Mom took me to see when it opened first-run in Winnipeg at the Park Theatre on November 30, 1973, a good two years after it opened in the United States. As a kid, I'd been chomping at the bit to see it. Released in many markets as simply, Macbeth, I was well aware of the picture's existence as I'd started reading the show business trade bible "Variety" at the age of 10 and now, oh happy day, the movie was finally playing in our midwestern Winter City.

There were a whole whack of cool films playing in the 'Peg that weekend. It was the opening day of two amazing drive-in double features. In the west end of the city, A.I.P.'s The Little Cigars Mob featuring Angel Tompkins robbing banks with a gang of armed midgets and the jaw-dropping Ray Milland-Rosie Grier=grafted-together horror-comedy The Thing With Two Heads (both of which Dad took me to see on the Saturday night) and in the north end, Gimme Shelter and Monterey Pop were unspooling, but neither parent would take me to see those movies since the only music they enjoyed were Ukrainian Liturgies, Ukrainian Folk Songs, Nana Mouskouri, Mantovani and the Percy Fsith Orchestra. (The closest they ever got to Heavy Metal was Harry Belafonte.) That weekend in Winnipeg was ALSO opening night of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould, but as I'd already ear-marked it to see alone during my usual Saturday afternoon movie forays downtown, I asked Mom if she could drive me all the way to the south-end Friday night and take me to watch the movie I'd so desperately wanted to see. She agreed.

Let's place this in perspective, folks. My Mother, a nice, polite, North End Winnipeg Ukrainian girl drove her son across town to sit with him and watch The Tragedy of Macbeth, Roman Polanski's blood-soaked, ultra-violent adaptation with, I might add, Lady Macbeth parading about in the nude whilst delivering her madness monologue. I don't know a lot of Moms who would do this for their progeny, but MY MOM DID!!!

By my teen years, I had occasion to read "Macbeth" again - this time within the context of a North End Winnipeg public school English class under the divine tutelage of Mrs. Elaine Rappaport. She was the best English teacher I ever had until my post-secondary years, and even then, she held her own with the best of them. The wife of noted Rabbi Sidney Rappaport from the Rosh Pina Synagogue in Winnipeg (he passed away in 2009), she was one classy, snappy, sharp-witted lady.

That said, and not wishing to toot my own horn, but she soon found herself face-to-face with the Macbeth-like madness lodged within the heart and soul of a teenage movie freak. After the astoundingly brave act of showing a bunch of kids a 16mm print of Polanski's film, I immediately dove in on the picture's violence, linking it to the despair and guilt Polanski must have been feeling over the murder of his beloved wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Clan. Years later I discovered that every Tom, Dick and Harry had made this same cliched, unoriginal and condescendingly simplistic observation.

So shoot me. I was a teenager. Besides, not a bad observation for a kid.

Though she tried to take issue with my comment, I knew Mrs. Rappaport was always ahead of the curve and I suspected, even at the time, that she mildly and politely disputed my precocious assertion so she could take our discussion away from a sickening murder that many kids in those days, even in high school, had been sheltered from.

I plunged ahead, though, and began recalling the specific date and explicit DETAILS of Sharon Tate's murder, in addition to the approximate dates as to WHEN the writing of the script and subsequent PRODUCTION of the film would have occurred. I then insisted that based upon the aforementioned findings, my point could not be disputed.

I'll never forget the sparkles in Mrs. Rappaport's eyes as she then launched into a brief elaboration of my point and then moved us on ever-so gracefully (and graciously) to discuss the differences between the film and play.

One week after my Mother took her final breath of life after a long battle with stomach cancer, I was reminded of her dedication to a precocious son's desire to read and obsess over all things "Macbeth" and, of course, the movies. I'm eternally grateful to her. My love for cinema, theatre and literature was both encouraged and indeed nurtured by her. She might well have been seen by the world as "only" a mother, housewife and part-time bank teller, but even as a kid I knew how she'd studied violin at the Conservatory of Music and eventually gave up a professional life as a musician to be a loving Mother and dutiful Wife. She had the soul of an artist which she saw in me also and did everything in her power to arm me with the means to never give up on my own desires and talents as she had done in the days when many women felt forced by societal pressures to do so. In the words of the old Russian-Jewish folk song, popularized by the Welsh songstress Mary Hopkins, "Those were the days, my friend".

Indeed they were.

In fact, the thought that we'll ever again see a Shakespeare film adaptation as truly great as Polanski's (and in fairness, I tend to include and acknowledge those elements Francis Ford Coppola borrowed for Godfathers I & II), is not something I take solace in. What I do accept wholeheartedly is that Polanski's The Tragedy of Macbeth is so "modern", so forward-thinking, so ideally faithful and intelligently interpreted that we do, in fact, have a film for the ages.

Polanski so wisely centres his film firmly and fiercely within Lady Macbeth's successful exertions of influence and then secondarily, that of the witch hags Macbeth encounters on the way home after his victories in war to fling himself into the loving arms of his wife. The good Lady's wifely influence provea to be too successful. Her ambitious husband's subsequent actions of lying, cheating, stealing, traitorously conspiring and committing murder in the coldest of blood is the stuff which all our dreams are made on. (Personally, I've always been aware of my own roiling needs, rooted as they were, and still are, in a kind of selfish know-it-all "quality" so that ultimately, the only possible influence I have to exert them, comes from me and me alone.)

At the beginning of the film, we learn that Macbeth (Jon Finch) has done magnificently in battle. The manner in which Polanski sets this up is simply masterful. Who will ever forget the murky skies overlooking the bodies and blood upon the muck, the poor flailing sod being ball and chained to death and the kind of mad horror in actor Jon Finch's eyes as Macbeth's otherwise poker-face surveys the damage/victory he's wrought.

This is the horror Polanski thrusts us immediately into and it's impossible to unglue one's eyeballs from the proceedings. This tragedy of Shakespeare's is indeed a work of horror and Polanski seems to understand this better than any other filmmaker who tackled the play (including, I might add, the rich, evocative, but fatally flawed Orson Welles version). When Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan for leading a successful decimation of the enemy (and capturing the rebel leader who previously bore the title), we get the tiniest glimmer of pride - perhaps even a smidgen of happiness - in Macbeth, this newly honoured young warrior.

Fate has other plans for him though. Encountering a gaggle of horrendous hags - witches of the most odious order - Macbeth hears and is infected with their prophecy that he will be King. Though he attempts to eschew thoughts of such glory, he won't have a chance against the most powerful witch of all, the extremely mortal, but bewitchingly concupiscent, mind-alteringly ravishing Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis).

Polanski's first triumph was in casting these two actors. Finch, many of whom will remember as the strangely unlikeable loser protagonist Richard Blaney in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, is such an astonishing Macbeth I suspect I'll never be able to imagine the face of the character with any other visage. Finch so brilliantly captures the various shades of Macbeth's intensity as it percolates slowly whilst his alluringly magnetic Lady places thoughts of being King in his mind - almost taunting, shaming him into desiring as quick an ascension to the throne as possible - one in which only murder can pave the way to.

Annis, of course, is the ultimate Lady Macbeth. She is not only stunning in every camera-loves-her respect, but she delivers her desires with the deftness of a fox and increasingly with viper-like stings which soon latch unshakeably onto Macbeth's manly psyche.

If murder be the only way, so be it.

Polanski continues to focus upon their relationship throughout until the narrative shifts into Shakespeare's astonishingly wrought parallel descents into derangement of the most fevered order. As Macbeth becomes more tyrannical, Lady Macbeth begins to slip into madness. They both lose their souls - in fact, Polanski emphasizes that it's their deep love, their bottomless pit of passion which is the unholy instrument which undoes both of them. Lady Macbeth's madness causes her to erupt into guilt so appallingly, deeply, debilitatingly and destructively molten whilst the crown-thieving maniac Macbeth fills his dwindling spiritual reserves as his soul pours out paranoia which is as catastrophic in its decimation of his humanity as the guilt is so ruinous to his lady.

When I first saw The Tragedy of Macbeth as a kid, I still remembering how I chuckled out loud, receiving odd stares from both my Mother and audience members. I soon kept my guffaw-bursts in check, but later revealed to my mother in the drive home after the screening that every single time Macbeth looked upon a potential enemy (i.e. murder victim), it reminded me of those fantasy sequences in the Fleischer Popeye cartoons when a starving Wimpy would look at virtually any living thing and imagine them to be a pig, a cow, a chicken - anything he could slaughter and eat. Seeing the movie again on the Criterion Blu-Ray I got the same thoughts. I'm convinced that Polanski intentionally staged, shot and cut Finch's glares at his eventual victims - not in homage to the Fleischer cartoons, but certainly with the same mad, darkly hilarious undercurrent which Fleischer imbued his own films with.

Not only are we tantalized with one blood spattering grotesquerie after another, but Polanski wisely has Lady Macbeth wander buck naked throughout the castle as she delivers her madness monologue. Let's not make the mistake here of downplaying Polanski's genius as a showman - he's the ultimate showman. He dazzles us with both prurience and a veritable rampage of brutality. Shakespeare was a showman, too. Let's not forget that. If anything, Polanski's delectably and suitably exploitative indulgences allow us one HELL OF A GOOD SHOW whilst at the same time, shove our faces in the sheer horror of Macbeth and his Lady's respective madness.

Seeing The Tragedy of Macbeth during one of the most emotionally draining periods of my life was exactly what the doctor ordered. Running parallel to this sentient drainage in my own life were also feelings of sentiment and nostalgia - I couldn't help but do the math as I faced so much of what I loved in a place that reminded me how these things of beauty were either gone or about to go and would soon be relegated, and in fact were actually being consigned to the hallowed place of memory.

The Tragedy of Macbeth as deftly rendered by Polanski did what any great work of art should do. Here I was, watching a work written over 400 years ago and interpreted in a version from over forty years ago and it touched me on a very personal level.

I thought, with the indelible sharpness of crystal that SOME women, like my Mother and English teacher, inspire the sun, moon and stars of the mind, while others, as scribed by Shakespeare, inspired pure NAKED ambition.

Luckily the ambition inspired by the two great women in MY early life was fully clothed.

THE FILM CORNER RATING for Film and Blu-Ray: ***** 5-Stars

The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of The Tragedy of Macbeth is yet another example for me of the genuine art of creating home entertainment for as rich an experience as possible. The 4K transfer was personally approved by director Roman Polanski and as such, both sound and picture are as mind blowing as one could imagine.

The extra features are a pure goldmine of information, insight and education. An all-new one hour documentary entitled Toil and Trouble: Making “Macbeth” includes wonderful contemporary interviews with Roman Polanski which provide a marvellous retrospective glimpse into his film from the position of having to discuss it over forty years after it was made. The doc is fleshed out with appearances by production executives and actors (including Annis herself).

The 1971 Frank Simon documentary Polanski Meets Macbeth delivers a historical look at the making of the film and includes footage of the cast and crew on set. It's thoroughly fascinating.

Two other extra features are so wonderful, they could have been the ONLY value added elements and I doubt anyone would have been disappointed. The first is Polanski's co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan being interviewed by the great Dick Cavett in 1971. The piece not only allows us the privilege of meeting with the brilliant Tynan to hear his perspective on the process, but as per usual, we get yet another example of just what a great interviewer Cavett was.

Secondly, and perhaps the most vital document is Two Macbeths from the wonderful 1972 British TV series Aquarius. This is must-see viewing for anyone who loves film and theatre as we are blessed with a conversation about "Macbeth" between Polanski and the noted theater director Peter Coe.

In addition to the supply of trailers and a Terrence Rafferty essay within a lovely booklet, this Criterion Blu-Ray is yet again adorned with a stunning cover design from Sarah Habibi whose work is so consistently amazing that I almost wish she could just design every Blu-Ray and DVD cover for every movie I love.

Needless to say, this Criterion Blu-Ray is a keeper folks.