Vanity Fare


Obsessed with his role-playing, even as he rebels against it, Hamlet may be the most self-conscious poseur in English theater. It’s a part ready-made for mannerism, which is perhaps what attracted Ethan Hawke to the material. Consequently, downtown filmmaker Michael Almereyda’s slimmed-down, updated version of the Shakespeare tragedy—with Hawke in the title role—is stylish, funny, and smart . . . but only up to a point.

Almereyda’s revamped scenario concerns a power struggle within the Denmark Corporation, a vaguely defined multinational whose headquarters appear to be the Hotel Elsinore in Times Square. Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has taken over the company and married his murdered predecessor’s wife, Gertrude (Diane Venora). Opposing these evil, parental suits, Hamlet is a blandly obnoxious aspiring digital videomaker who affects throughout a grungy Peruvian wool hat.

You might well wonder if Hawkes’s Hamlet is the curtain-raiser for Kelsey Grammer’s upcoming Macbeth. (Could it be a harbinger of George Clooney’s Lear? Adam Sandler’s Richard III?) But the star, who evidently used his bankability to get this 16mm movie made, is not the only behavioral performer here. Hawkes’s combination of self-importance and callow cool is complemented by Julia Stiles’s Ophelia, a sullen teenager with her own lower Manhattan loft. (Stiles exudes such agonized petulance one suspects Almereyda deliberately kept her waiting an hour before each take.)

Hamlet is predicated on stunt casting—which, though it may not enrich the material, at least provides a subtext. MacLachlan is an actor who never appears less (or more) than fake. Venora herself played Hamlet in a celebrated Joseph Papp production, and her Gertrude has far more physical authority than actual dialogue. Bill Murray’s Polonius seems to have taken literally Hamlet’s description of his character as “a foolish prating knave.” As Laertes, Liev Schreiber—another recent Hamlet—is the most conventionally Shakespearean in his carefully tossed-off line readings. (Schreiber’s scenes with Murray and Stiles place him uncomfortably between the facetious and the inept; those with Hawke leave the unmistakable impression of an actor who cannot help but think he should have been cast in the lead.)

Given the free-floating narcissism, Hamlet is appropriately image-haunted. The prince delivers his first soliloquy via Pixelvision on a laptop screen. His father’s ghost is initially glimpsed in an elevator monitor. (There’s another specter in a fleetingly televised James Dean, surely the Hamlet to which the mumbling Hawke might aspire.) Throughout, Almereyda layers the visual information through a panoply of computer screens, TV sets, bookcases. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy is staged in the action aisle at Blockbuster Video, and the movie’s comic high point is the video Hamlet presents to catch the king’s conscience—a found-footage assemblage encompassing everything from Edison’s Electrocuting an Elephant to a bit of Lewis Klahr cut-and-paste animation.

Hamlet is not quite camp—although this is a movie where it always seems to be Halloween. Making much of faxes and speaker-phones, the movie has more than a casual resemblance to Aki Kaurismäki’s 1987 Hamlet Goes Business. (The rubber duck that Ophelia returns to Hamlet is an homage—in Kaurismäki’s supremely sarcastic film, Claudius is attempting to corner the world market in bath toys.) Like the Finnish director’s mock grandiloquent noir, Almereyda’s Hamlet is at least part thriller, and as diffident as he might seem, the director does imbue the proceedings with a measure of moody urgency.

From the opening low-angle traveling shot through Times Square to Hamlet’s hasty trip to JFK in the company of those duplicitous dudes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Steve Zahn and the star’s brother-in-law Dechen Thurman), Hamlet is a swiftly paced rhapsodic nocturne. The movie has the benefit of Carter Burwell’s lush, brooding score and cinematographer John de Borman’s glowing, saturated palette. Almereyda uses midtown Manhattan as evocatively as he did the East Village in Nadja. There’s a visual poetry to the looming towers of power and the chrome and glass apartments in the sky.

But the joke only goes so far, and even at a relatively svelte 112 minutes Hamlet comes apart in its final third. Effectively snarky to begin with, reasonably mad throughout the middle scenes, Hawke has nothing left but attitude for the finale, particularly once the supporting cast begins dropping out around him. Can we term this a vanity project? Well before TV commentator Robert MacNeil appears to deliver the suitably glib wrap-up, it’s apparent that “the rest is silence.”

Rereleased in a fine new print, Luis Buñuel’s 1972 Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie boasts one of the best titles in movie history and a cast to match. Three divas of the post-nouvelle vague French cinema—Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stephanie Audrane—are supported by the suavest of Buñuel regulars Fernando Rey, the comic Jean-Pierre Cassel, and the veteran secondario Paul Frankeur. They form a sextet, four of whom arrive a night early for dinner at the other two’s home. This faux pas sends the universe reeling. Subsequently thwarted by a combination of narrative digressions and outrageous plot devices, the six never manage to consummate their meal.

Buñuel invites us to savor their endless frustration and feast on their irrational impulses. Blithely discontinuous, Discreet Charm has echoes of Buñuel’s early surrealist films, although its episodic, interlocking stories suggest the influence of The Saragasso Manuscript and Godard’s Weekend. In populating his movie with blatant bourgeois piggies and bedeviling them with third world terrorists, Buñuel was—more than usual—responding to the moment. (It’s mildly amazing that this movie won an Oscar—but that was back in the heyday of the New Hollywood. Typically, the filmmaker told a credulous Mexican journalist that his producers had bribed the Academy.)

The European art cinema that Discreet Charm epitomized may be a relic, but in some ways Buñuel’s movie feels oddly contemporary. The smug consumption notes by which his protagonists define their personalities, their hyperawareness of caste, and the way they address their social inferiors all suggest American Psycho (as does the violence that surrounds them). Buñuel, of course, not only is funnier than Bret Easton Ellis but also has a more developed social critique. A bishop insinuates himself into the group as their self-appointed servant; the army drops by for dinner; the three men are cocaine smugglers.

Buñuel populated The Exterminating Angel, an early variant on this story, with actors drawn from Mexican telenovelas, and it’s amusing to reimagine Discreet Charm remade with the cast of Friends. (Though insulting, the movie was a crowd pleaser.) This is the closest Buñuel ever came to situation comedy. Put another way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is the statement to which the final episode of Seinfeld aspired.

More counterculture archaeology: The Screening Room is this week featuring four examples of a uniquely Japanese mode, New Left softcore porn. Operating on a more subterranean level than Nagisa Oshima or even Seijun Suzuki, Koji Wakamatsu gave the various rapes, orgies, and routine or sadistic couplings of the so-called pink film a Reichian spin or placed them in the context of radical student movements. Attacking sexual alienation, Wakamatsu’s Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969) is a bloody, if static, Bonnie and Clyde played out on a Tokyo rooftop by two blank adolescents; his more expansive and parodic Ecstasy of Angels (1970) similarly analyzes the role of sexual repression in tracing the disintegration of a revolutionary cell.

The series also includes Yasuharu Hasebe’s ultramod Black Tight Killers (1966), featuring a kicky group of go-go ninjas, and offers as its centerpiece Shunya Ito’s Female Convict “Scorpion”—Jailhouse 41 (1972). Were it not filled with all manner of supernatural trappings and Noh theater conventions, this solemnly absurd prison-break girl-gang film might be a cousin to Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The men are uniformly craven swine, and although I’d hesitate to call this a feminist tract, gender revenge is certainly crucial. Killing the bad guy just once isn’t enough—when he’s dead, the fierce, implacable heroine is finally free to laugh, her merriment reflected back at the audience in the iris of his now detached glass eye.