Posted tagged ‘Michael Almereyda’

Hamlet, After the Fall

July 22, 2009


When Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out in 2000, it seemed a vision of the excess of America and New York City in particular (its locale). The film updates the tale of that woefully split Prince of Denmark to the young woefully split, hipster/indie-filmmaker son of the “King and CEO” of the “Denmark Corporation”. From the get-go, one can tell that this is not a Kenneth Branagh film. First of all, there’s the presence of such non-Shakespeareans as Steve Zahn and Bill Murray, idling around in suits and punked-out leather jackets making jibes from the Bard’s lines. Second of all are all the backdrops, constantly moving tableaux of the New York elite ranging from the billboards on Times Square to the interior of the Guggenheim museum. Instead of a proscenium or a replica of mid-1500s Denmark, we are given the interiors of lofty skyscrapers, looking down on the rest of New York City.

Obviously, there is a parallel to be made here and Almereyda tries explicitly to make it: While back in Shakespeare’s time the kings and princes might have been the elite, in the year 2000 it is the heads of corporations, the ultra-rich. It is a world where Hamlet does not engage in self-reflection via mirror or a soliloquy, but instead by recording his own monologues via a DV camera, attempting to piece together the disparate feelings in his life. The movie feels somewhat stuck between the world it attempts to create and its faithfulness to the text–leather jackets or no, they’re the same lines they’ve been saying since Shakespeare’s time–but at least, for the time, it was admirable in its attempt.

However, looking back on the film in 2009, it seems in someways dated and someways prescient. While it might be strange to talk of a film from the same decade as “dated”, it is notable that the CEOs of ambiguous corporations such as the fictional “Denmark Corporation”, or say Enron, are no longer regarded as kings or unreachable figures. Every week in the New Yorker or the New York Times is another tale of high-paid CEOs as extremely fallible humans, in lesser or greater parts responsible for the current recession. When we hear about people like Countrywide or Bear Stearns, companies going under, we find out that their CEOs were car salesmen or bridge players, drafted in a competive game of chance and hucksterdom into higher and higher ranks of the organization, leading to their own personal downfalls. In a world where we’ve lost both significant portions of the automobile and financial industries, not only are the rich inclined to keep a low profile, but many of them have been deposed. In other words, it is unsure that Hamlet would even have his Denmark to worry about.

In other ways, in the realms of excesses, Almereyda’s Hamlet seems prescient. Kyle MacLachlan’s Claudius rises to the top of the Denmark Corporation through fairly literally back-stabbing that seems only slightly more figurative in the business world today. Bill Murray’s Polonius seems to be a brainless yes-man, dressed up in a suit, attempting politics in what seems like a pre-Bush-era sendup. Even Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet seems to be a blogger, involved in web-video before the trend came on.

Still, other parts, like the replacement of Hamlet‘s famous “play-within-a-play” (“The play’s the thing by which I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet says), with an experimental video seems a bit much, if maybe only to show the whineyness and degradation of Shakespeare’s archetype in our current times.

Still, looking back on Almereyda’s Hamlet of the 2000s proves and interesting time capsule of what life once was, both far and not-so-long ago.

-Nicholas Feitel

The Bard Goes Global continues this week at The Walter Reade Theater. Tickets on sale now.

Nicholas Feitel also writes for his blog, Feitelogram


Film Comment Selects: Interview with Paradise director Michael Almereyda

March 2, 2009

Michael Almereyda and Film Comment's Gavin Smith, photo by Godlis

At what point in collecting material for Paradise did you decide that this would become a stand-alone project in which you collage your footage together? And once you came to this awareness how did it affect the way you continued to collect material?

Michael Almereyda:  In 2004, as I was finishing my portrait of William Eggleston, I applied for a Guggenheim Grant with the idea of making a movie scrapped together from the DV tapes I’ve been accumulating over the years.  And then of course the process of reviewing and distilling the footage was far from simple, or quick.  But in reviewing footage I began to recognize certain patterns and blind spots, certain proofs of how circumscribed my life is.  I mean, I’ve seldom been exposed to much hard physical labor, or even simple, down and dirty, working class activity.  So some of the most recent material was shot with a view towards addressing this.  The episode in the furniture factory in Krakow, for instance.  (A couple friends have named this as their surprise favorite.)

What is/was your relationship with this camera? Do you constantly have it with you and get it out when you feel inspired, or do you occasionally grab it on your way out the door thinking, “I’ll bring it with me tonight, something could come up”?  Are you continuing to collect material in this manner?

MA:  The camera has become like an old, slightly infirm pet – a pet that has to be fed with images.  Sometimes it seems I can’t live without it.  Sometimes it’s just a nuisance.  Now, having finished this version of the movie, I’m content to leave it at home more often than not – though this usually guarantees that something interesting will happen, something unrepeatable that I wish I could document.

Why did you decide to open and close the film with music over the scenes rather than with ambient sounds like in the rest of the film? What were your intentions with the coda?

MA: The movie is seemingly chaotic, so I felt it was good to provide a frame, with those airport shots and Paul Miller’s music – a threshold to cross into and out of.  And I like the way the music loops this one surging string section — the sense of anticipation, the circling quality.  It’s meant to relate to the searching and circling movement of the various episodes.  As you noticed, ambient sounds take over and provide another kind of music.

Your film is structured into four thematic parts, symmetrically containing eleven scenes each. Why and how did you decide to create a specific structure to you film?

MA: Well, it’s good to organize your thoughts, even if the thoughts are fragmentary, and even if one of your central ideas is that experience doesn’t necessarily organize itself into tidy narratives.  All the same, the film’s structure is fairly intuitive, organic.  (I’ve been reading a terrific book, “The Delighted States” by Adam Thirlwell, about literary forms, literary history, and a great deal of it can be applied to film and, for that matter, life: “Truth is fleeting, and fragmentary,  It is stashed away…  It is something that can only be recovered through upending normal values.”)

Does this film mark the beginning of a new trajectory for you?

MA: When you consider that the movie involves ten years’ worth of home video tapes, it’s hard to think of it as a new trajectory.  I’ll probably always be shooting DV on the side, but I think I can still put a spin on old-fashioned narrative filmmaking.   I’m working now on a biopic about the experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram.  He was keenly interested in human behavior, the relationship of individuals to various social networks, and fundamental questions about the basic ingredients that make a person an individual.  Actually, Paradise has something to say about these things, so maybe it’s not a terribly different direction after all.

-Aily Nash, Film Comment

Jonathan Lethem and Michael Almereyda at opening night of Film Comment Selects

February 23, 2009

Michael Almereyda and Jonathan Lethem at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Photo by Godlis

Film Comment Selects: Michael Almereyda’s Paradise opens the series tonight

February 20, 2009

Michael Almereyda’s new film Paradise is Film Comment Selects’ Opening Night film. Almereyda, born in 1960 in Overland Park, Kansas, dropped out of Harvard to become a filmmaker. At the start of his career he was a screenwriter for folks such as Wenders and Lynch, whose thematic traces are palpable in Almereyda’s own films. His first feature Twister, a quirky tale of family dysfunction, is reminiscent of Paris, Texas, not only because of Harry Dean Stanton’s presence, but because a similar fascination with the American wasteland emerges. While the settings of Almereyda’s films may shift between the American south, the heartland, and the urban—New York and L.A., his films focus on distinctly American tales. His narrative works range from contemporary adaptations of classics (DH Lawrence and Shakespeare), examinations of genre (his vampire film Nadja), and intimate portraits that experiment with recording methods. His use of the Pixel-vision camera to convey a sense of intimacy and subjectivity, (an homage to the experimental films of Sadie Benning, perhaps?) has become somewhat of a trademark, starting with Another Girl Another Planet, which was shot entirely on the Fisher-Price toy camera, to his high profile post-modern take on Hamlet, in which Hamlet himself (played by Ethan Hawke) uses it as a personal diary. At Sundance, This So-Called Disaster, and William Eggleston in the Real World are all docs that turn the camera on other artists and filmmakers. The Eggleston film manages to balance intimate portraiture with insightful readings and contextualization of Eggleston’s great body of work. His newest film Paradise, made from personal video material Almereyda shot over several years, is a collage of beautifully woven fragments from everyday life.

-Aily Nash, Film Comment

Buy tickets to Paradise: Fri Feb 20: 6:30

From The Hurt Locker to Paradise, situationists to Korean thrillers, Film Comment Selects tickets now on sale!

January 30, 2009


The yearly two-week series of idiosyncratic visions, must-see restrospectives and the occasional nekkid lady handpicked by the editors of Film Comment is back and it’s more provocative than ever. A few highlights of this year’s selection:

A rare chance to see a pair of legendary cult documenaries from the early 80s by filmmaking couple Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines. A must for fans of American Movie and American Teen, here’s your chance to check out Demon Lover Diary and Seventeen.

A rocking Guy Debord retrospective. We whetted your appetite with In girum at the New York Film Festival, now you can fully immerse yourself in Debord’s unique world-view. What you were looking for, puppy dogs and rainbows?

One more major Film Society screening and afterparty: see Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains–a backstage satire and valentine to the faded glory of punk featuring a then-unknown Diane Lane and Laura Dern in flaming eye shadow and fishnet stockings–followed by a post-punk afterparty featuring DJ’s Dan Selzer (Acute Records) and Aileen Brophy (Corita). We all know what happened last time. You can RSVP on Facebook.

The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s rewriting of the action genre, a high-adrenaline look at soldiers putting their lives on the line in Iraq that’s been garnering lots of festival buzz and year-end list love.

An unrelenting new action thriller from South Korea (and a mega hit and award-winner in that country), The Closer.

Michael Almereyda’s latest, Paradise, a fragmentary video diary that defies categorization. Almereyda will join author Jonathan Lethem onstage after the film for a Q&A.

Stayed tuned for in-depth coverage from the filmlinc blog, but for the moment, see the whole program here.