Monday, September 22, 2014

Let It Come Down

In 1823, Thomas De Quincey published a short essay in London Magazine called "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth." In it, De Quincey, a writer best known now for his book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and the series of long essays that are collectively known as "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," focuses on the scene in Shakespeare's play, following the murder of Duncan, the King of Scotland, by Macbeth, his heretofore loyal Thane of Glamis, then Thane of Cawdor, when, the morning after the killing, before the discovery of Duncan's corpse, there is a knock on the castle gate, and the porter noisily shuffles along to open it and let in, as it turns out, Macduff, the Thane of Fife, and the man who will eventually exact vengeance upon the vile Macbeth. De Quincey begins this way:

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth: it was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account: the effect was -- that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity: yet, however obstinately I endeavoured with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

The reason this scene -- the only comedic scene in the play, as the porter grumbles about the knocking, then commiserates with Macduff about the various effects of alcohol -- worked on De Quincey the way it did, he decided, is because it signaled the reaction, presence, and unavoidable continuation of regular life as it pressed right up against shocking horror. De Quincey uses as an example taking part in the funeral procession of a notable figure through city streets, which soon bustle back into life. A more everday example might be having to go out in public, perhaps to run an errand that can't be postponed, soon after hearing about the death of a loved one. People, you might notice, keep on buying beer and getting their glasses fixed. This fact bumps up against your despair, and fortifies it.

In adapting Macbeth in 1971, director and co-screenwriter (with literary critic Kenneth Tynan) Roman Polanski seems also to have adapted De Quincey's essay. If one single thing separates Polanski's Macbeth, which will be released on Blu-ray and DVD this Tuesday by Criterion, from other major film version of the play, such as those directed by Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa, it is the sometimes breathtaking savagery of the violence. Welles's wonderfully expressionist take depicts the violence in a more or less standard stab-and-fall style, whereas in Throne of Blood Kurosawa, no stranger to blood, keeps it mostly off-stage, including killings that Shakespeare kept on-stage, storing it all up for Macbeth's (Jon Finch) fate. Polanski, on the other hand, puts almost all of it on-stage, including Macbeth's murder of Duncan (Nicholas Selby), not shown by Shakespeare, and meanwhile throws in a handful of brand new deaths, splashing blood all along the way. Throats are cut, axes are buried in backs and groins, heads are severed, wounded men are beaten with spiked maces, people are lynched in groups, children die. Even the loophole to the witches promise that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth" that leaves him vulnerable is put on the screen, even before we're told what that means.

That loophole, of course, is that Macduff (Terence Bayler) was not "born of woman" in the traditional sense, but rather for medical reasons we in the audience are not privy to but can imagine, he was surgically removed from her belly. So to dramatize that, as one of many images in the dreamy shimmer of the witches' cauldron, Polanski shows a close-up of a pregnant belly, then a knife entering the belly, and slicing. I will be far from the first and far from the last person to point out that Macbeth was Polanski's first film since his wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by Charles Manson's cult. Murdered simultaneously with Tate was Tate and Polanski's child, with whom she was eight months pregnant at the time. It's not necessary to go into what Tate's murderers did to her body, but that shot in Macbeth of a knife cutting into a pregnant belly isn't simply, in this version of the play, a bit of plot-work. It transforms the double murder of a young woman and her unborn child into an act of life-preserving surgery. Or perhaps it transforms an act of life-preserving surgery into the double murder of a young woman and her unborn child. I'm assuming this was all done unconsciously.

Hence, long story short, the film's savagery. The very existence of Polanski's Macbeth is an illustration of and comment upon De Quincey's point about the juxtaposition of murder and the "reaction," which is to say, everything that isn't the murder and has nothing whatsoever to do with it, i.e., a hungover old man opening a gate. By the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) have been "conformed to the image of devils," De Quincey writes, "and the world of devils is suddenly revealed." To show this, the world of devils must briefly go away, and so "the knocking of the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced...and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that suspended them.

Polanski's unspeakably grim film counted, for him, as "the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world" (though he has said that he consciously chose "serious" material for his return picture). The fact that, even if Polanski saw the significance of everything he was doing with completely clear eyes, none of this turns his Macbeth into some post-modern wank is a testament not only to his talent but also to the seriousness of everything involved, from the immortality of Shakespeare's language on up. Polanski's well-documented failures as a human being are deep, many, and unforgivable, but his films remain uniquely bracing dives into those failures, as well as the shocking tragedies that litter his life. Among those films, and along with his grotesquely funny horror movie The Tenant, Polanski's Macbeth, this reflection back on the "awful parenthesis," is one of the most piercing howls in film history.

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