Film Diary

In watching Hamlet (1996), in multiple stints of course, I certainly came to have a deeper understanding of the play than I did after seeing the renditions of Almereyda or Doran, released in 2000 and 2009, respectively.  Branagh’s film is about as faithful as a modern, cinematic retelling of the story can be, while still retaining elements of interpretation.  I particularly enjoyed the cameos of Robin Williams and especially Billy Crystal.

Billy Crystal plays the gravedigger with whom Hamlet and Horatio come into contact after returning from England.  Hamlet initially balks at the gravedigger’s cavalier treatment of the remains, before getting into his famous existential monologue.  The gravedigger produces a skull that formerly belonged to Yorick, the court jester that entertained Hamlet as a child.  Hamlet meditates on the futility of life, as everyone, even Alexander the Great, will eventually become dust.  After this, and the subsequent realization that Ophelia has died, Hamlet is finally ready to avenge his father, which he has been putting off doing for the entire play.

There was one element of this first scene of the fifth act that revealed I hadn’t considered before.  The gravedigger mentions his first day on the job was the day Hamlet was born.  He follows this by saying “ I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years” (ll. 144-5) explicitly stating Hamlet’s age.  I had always been under the impression that Hamlet was a teenager, or young adult.


Note Taking Reflection

The differences between reading a play-text and watching a film are abundant.  A film can only be watched at one speed and a close analysis would often require re-watching the same scene multiple times.  Play-texts, on the other hand, almost must be read at varying speeds; Shakespeare’s plays especially lend themselves to a much slower, closer reading.  In film, talented actors can deliver their lines in such a way that, while the viewer may have trouble with the archaic language, the message is easily understood.  Again, such is not the case with play-texts.  One must read slowly and carefully, and constantly refer to footnotes to understand the intricacies of the text.  As a result of these differences, not taking is vastly different between the two different forms of media.

Although modern technology has made improvements in this sense, it is still very difficult to annotate on a screen.  In text notes are much easier with a play-text, which is why I annotate in the margins while I read.  My approach varies depending on what I’m reading.  Poetry I will usually read through two or three times without even touching a pen.  Once I’ve got a handle on the poem I begin to annotate, focusing on recurring symbols, diction, and a rhyme scheme if there is one.  Novels I usually read through entirely without annotating at all, because, frankly, with heavy course loads, jobs, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance, there isn’t enough time in the day to read that slowly.  If I’m doing a close reading of a particular passage, I’ll annotate to my heart’s content in much the same way I do with poetry.  My annotations of Shakespeare seems to find middle ground between the two; it reads like poetry and requires more intensive note taking to get the most out of the text, but, again, I have to be realistic with my time.  I’ll make the occasional note in the margin, or underline a line I don’t fully understand, but I won’t draw all over the page unless I’m doing a close reading.  Also, my ability to pick up meaning on my first time through a passage of Shakespeare has improved dramatically since high school.

As for film, I’ve only rarely had to annotate it before this class, but that’s because I’m in English, not Film Studies.  The only time other than this class in which I’ve had to watch an excerpt from a film over and over while taking notes was when I had to provide a NoteTaking_2psychoanalytic reading of the “Gutterballs” dream sequence in The Big Lebowski.  I tend to avoid taking notes by hand like the plague, since my printing is so atrocious, so I connected my laptop to another monitor and watched the scene on one screen, while taking notes on another.  That’s the approach I’ve taken during this class, while watching the films at home and in class.  In class I tend to position myself so that I can see the projector screen and my laptop without having to move my head and take notes while we watch.  Unfortunately, time constraints prevent us from re-watching scenes so I have to take notes on the first time through which I don’t like to do.  I find I get immersed in the plot and forget to take notes more so when watching Shakespeare than when I’m reading it.  At home, like when I was doing my scene comparison in Hamlet last week, I watched the scene two or three times through just to get a general sense of it before I slowed down and watched it almost line-by-line, taking notes on my computer as I went.

How I determine my note taking success is a more difficult question to answer.  I suppose it would be too easy to say, “the better mark I get on the assignment for which I was close reading, the more successful my annotation was.”  Perhaps it’s more a function of whether I can tell my understanding has deepened as a result of my annotation.  If, after my first, non-annotated, read through, I take a certain meaning from a text, which is then heightened or changed after annotating, then I suppose I have been successful.  There is certainly a fine-line though; I find it can be quite easy to get bogged down in annotation, noting things that are far too obscure or unimportant to ever contribute to the process of formulating an argument.

My annotations of A1S5 of Hamlet, on which I did my last blog post.

My typical Shakespeare home-viewing station.

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Please forgive the embedded PDF files; it was the only way UCalgary Blogs would let me upload pictures from my phone.

Hamlet Scene Study: Act 1 Scene 5 in Doran’s and Almereyda’s Films

Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, released in 2000, and Gregory Doran’s film from 2009 interpret the source material in vastly different ways.  In Almereyda’s retelling of the play, Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet, a brooding filmmaker in 1990s New York City.  Doran’s Hamlet is more faithful to the original text; a made-for-TV version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage production, it stars David Tennant in the titular role.  An interesting scene to compare the two films is the fifth of the first act, in which the deceased king returns as a ghost to tell Hamlet of his murder at the hands of Claudius.

As with the rest of the film, this scene in Doran’s Hamlet does little to reinvent Shakespeare’s text.  Save for a few superfluous lines that have been removed, the scene retains its original shape.  Foreboding music accompanies almost the entire scene.   It begins with the king, played by Patrick Stewart (who also plays Claudius), leading Hamlet away from Horatio and Marcellus.  The king appears as described in the text; he is dressed in full armour, with his visor raised, and an ethereal mist surrounds him throughout the entire scene.  After they leave the battlements and enter a large, dark room, Hamlet, sword drawn but still unsure as to what exactly he is witnessing, attempts to control the situation, saying “Whither wilt thou lead me? I will go no further” (l.1).  The ghost speaks for the first time, and his loud, haunting, almost robotic voice draws a submission from Hamlet before revealing he is, in fact, “thy father’s spirit” (l.9).


During the next roughly twenty lines, the ghost describes his current torment, slowly circling the dumbstruck Hamlet.  The ghost calls on Hamlet to avenge him, and when Hamlet learns the nature of his father’s death, he falls to his knees.  Gritting his teeth and stabbing his sword into the ground, Hamlet seems eager to take up the charge.  The shot then changes to show the ghost from Hamlet’s point of view, following him as he circles his son again and announces, directly into the camera, that “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (ll.39-40).  The music briefly adopts a higher, more sorrowful tone as the ghost remembers his “seeming-virtuous queen” (l.46); it is the one moment in which Stewart’s ghost appears truly regretful.  The rest of the scene continues in much the same way, until the ghost aggressively embraces Hamlet, drawing up his head, and demanding that he “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest” (ll. 83-4).  The embrace becomes more tender; the king cradles his still kneeling son’s head, before the pale light of morning indicates he must leave.  The ghost then disappears, leaving behind only the mist and the echoes of his last command, “Remember me” (l.91).  Hamlet is left, still on his knees, to deliver his subsequent soliloquy.


The same scene in Almereyda’s version has an entirely different tone, but shares certain elements.  It takes place not in the castle, which in this film would be Denmark Corp.’s headquarters, but in Hamlet’s well-lit, but dirty, apartment.  On one side of the room, a television shows images of explosions.  The ghost, played by Sam Shepard, appears on Hamlet’s balcony, and, unlike Patrick Stewart’s, his figure and voice are perfectly normal.  Another difference between the scenes lies in the manner of their speech; Shepard and Hawke avoid the theatricality of Stewart and Tennant, resorting instead to whispers and understated facial expressions.  Shepard’s ghost embraces Hamlet in a similar way to Stewart’s, when he delivers lines 18 to 20, which were among those cut in Doran’s film; he roughly grabs his cowering son’s hair, referring to it as “thy knotted and combined locks to part” (l.18) then gently caresses his cheek.  Almost all of Hamlet’s lines in this scene are cut, notably including lines 29 to 31, in which he announces his desire to seek revenge.  The result is a sullen Hamlet that shows almost no emotion, and seems more inclined to introspection than action.As in Doran’s version of the scene, the ghost hugs Hamlet as he finishes his speech.  In this instance, however, Shepard delivers his final line as a whisper in Hamlet’s ear.  Interestingly, the ghost’s disappearance is illustrated in the same shot sequence in both films: a shot of the two characters embracing, a head-on shot of Hamlet watching his father vanish, and then a shot of where the ghost ought to be standing.  The scene ends with the appearance of the Denmark Corp. logo on TV as Hamlet’s offscreen voice says “The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (194-5), replacing the rest of his soliloquy.

The differences in the interpretations of this scene are indicative of larger patterns throughout the films.  Almereyda’s version is more cerebral, and subtle.  By turning Hamlet’s soliloquies into thoughts, he explores the tortured prince’s growing insanity.  Hawke’s portrayal of Hamlet as completely detached from those around him suggests an attempt to withdraw from society in self-defence, a very difficult thing to do in modern New York.  Ultimately, the Hamlet-3film, while enjoyable, falls short of its potential, as it resists the theatre too much, allowing its characters to become somewhat dull.  Doran’s, on the other hand, makes its theatrical origins abundantly clear.  Tennant shines as a Hamlet that is frequently over-exuberant, almost to the point of being manic.  There is no understatement; the director’s bold choices and actors’ strong performances make for complex, layered characters, and the film is better off for it.



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