“One thing that makes Hamlet a masterpiece is the way it’s absorbed and echoed so many different voices and viewpoints over the last 400 years,” says Michael Almereyda, whose new film turns Shakespeare’s Danish prince into a trust-fund media artist. “For Brecht, the play was about political power. Camus wrote about it in terms of modern identity. For Tarkovsky, who mounted a stage production in the ’70s, it was about sacrifice and suicide and the woes of a troubled family. They were all helpful for this movie, and they kept me humble. Just one more blind man fumbling his way around this particularly spectacular elephant.”
Almereyda’s Another Girl, Another Planet and Nadja were both definitive downtown films, set in an East Village still resistant to gentrification. Hamlet is just as much a New York film, but the landscape is wider. “Shakespeare and New York have a strong natural chemistry,” he says. “I’d like to think that the match fulfills one of Bresson’s aphorisms: In a good movie, images and sounds should be like strangers that meet on a journey and become inseparable. That’s a good way to think about many disparate elements in this film—actors, architecture, music.” Even though money and time were limited, Almereyda was still able to bring together many far-flung elements: Frank Lloyd Wright architecture coexisting with an all-night East Village supermarket; the prerecorded voices of Eartha Kitt and (Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Buddhist monk) Thich Nhat Hanh; music by Tchaikovsky and Nick Cave, both inspired by Hamlet; additional photography by Jem Cohen and Lewis Klahr.
Is this Hamlet critical of the new sanitized and corporatized New York? Is New York in a state of decadence the way Denmark was in Shakespeare’s play? “Culture is always decadent, it’s always in a state of lost innocence. You read E.B. White writing about New York in the ’30s and he feels he’s just missed the golden age. Anyone who’s lived here long will remember how fantastic it used to be. It’s always vanishing, always devouring itself. I’d say American culture without question is decadent, but it’s also very vital. It’s the contradiction that keeps it alive. It’s easy to be lonely and alienated here, but it’s also easy to be exhilarated.” In other words, to be as manic-depressive as Hamlet.