The Tragedy That Is Macbeth

A Year of Essays: January 17, 2022

What was Joel Coen thinking? Because I’m not sure.

I loves me some Coen Brothers, and I really loves me some Frances McDormand. I kinda loves me some Denzel. Denzel in Much Ado about Nothing was sublime; Denzel in Fences, it was a film of a stage production.

That is how I experienced Joel Coen’s recent film, The Tragedy of Macbeth. Shot first in color then converted to black and white in post-production (to get the RGB filtration curves) with a stark set, it was reminiscent of Alan Schneider’s 1961 filmed play of Waiting for Godot with Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith — stark, dark and dreary, and playing to the camera. I wasn’t sure if it was experimental film, a graduate thesis project, or something entirely different. Maybe a combination of the three.

Are they in a desert? Or in the sand by the sea? Banquo is killed on a deserted road, and Fleance runs off into the bullrushes. Then, suddenly, Malcolm’s troops are hewing the branches of the Burnam Woods which we’ve never really seen. When we’re taken to Macduff’s castle on a cliff, that was the first sense of place I had, far too long into the film to make sense. Production designer Stefan Deschant painted backdrops for the exterior scenes, even the sky. We know it’s a stage and not real. “Everything is fake, and it’s absolutely gorgeous,” said Deschant. I needed a stronger sense of place, but never really found it.

Bruno Delbonnel, the cinematographer, wanted the film to be a “cinematic haiku,” the simplest form of filmmaking to contrast with the richness and complexity of the language in the play. Composed in square (Academy aspect ratio) with wide-angle shots and extreme close-ups, the film was abstract, almost Brechtian. The Weird Sisters — definitely Brechtian, with one becoming origami, the reflection of one sister as three in the water, the three sisters in the rafters, witches and crows simultaneously.

I can’t, and won’t, complain about casting. Ellen Chenoweth always gathers superb casts (Doubt, O Brother Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men). But when both Macbeth and Macduff barely flinch when they learn their wives are dead, the motivation disappears. Maybe when one has the absolute power, nothing affects.

At one point, I thought of the Ryōan-ji Zen Temple in Kyoto. Fifteen stones are in the garden, but you can never see all fifteen at once, only fourteen. Something in the film is always hiding, and we can never see the entirety of the piece.

This nihilistic tragedy should move me. It did not. I truly looked forward to it from the day I heard about it. My hopes were too heightened. Yet, I’m glad they made it. As an educator, it allows me to show yet another adaption of a grand play, and we can pick apart all the elements, dissecting and analyzing them, in hopes that one day, maybe, a student will pick up the script, assemble a team, and do something even better.

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