This year marks the 20th anniversary of Hamlet 2000, a stealth masterpiece adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda. It drew admirers back then, but it was all american beauty In 2000; he won the Oscar for best picture and his star Kevin Spacey, in better days, took home the award for best actor, playing a middle-aged lech who covets a teenager and is sort of noble because of it. This film seems to close the coffin on a virulent twentieth-century trope, born in 1955 with Lolita, which suggested that the molestation of children by disgruntled men represented the height of avant-garde rebellion. Hamlet 2000, on the other hand, inaugurates a new vision of existence as guided not by cruel male heroes but by screens that deliver the fragments of humanity to us through.
Yes american beauty better to forget, Hamlet in its 420th year should always be at hand. Almereyda’s inventive film adaptation is especially needed now in this time of plague, when theaters are dark around the world and our flesh is heir to the thousand natural shocks of this cursed pandemic. Almereyda sets the play in New York City, where Shakespeare’s secular decay of Europe becomes the all-new decay of 21st-century America. Hamlet is a pre-Prozac independent filmmaker (Ethan Hawke), Claudius is a CEO of bluff (Kyle MacLachlan), and Polonius is a failed comic (Bill Murray). For more bitter sweetness, Sam Shepard, who died in 2017, plays Hamlet’s father, the ghost.
Hamlet 2000 is a film of blue hallucinations and dizziness set in a weird, nervous year that seems to foreshadow the angst of 2020. Flashing tilts of screens, reflections and projections abound in Almereyda’s film, as well as the uncertain transition technology that defined the years. of the so-called analog sunset. “The fact that much of this technology is now obsolete can make the film look both touching and comical,” Almereyda told me recently via email. In 1992, he made a film on a Fisher-Price toy camera; the pleasure-pain of ephemeral technology does not escape him.
A fake WIRED number also appears in one scene, leafed through by Rosencrantz, or possibly Guildenstern. I asked Almereyda about it, and he told me that his cover shows Casey Affleck as Fortinbras, the prince who obsolete Hamlet in the play, which Almereyda sees as a “booming tech genius, ready. to conquer the world. “Affleck in the cover image doesn’t look like Mark Zuckerberg, but it couldn’t be; Zuckerberg was only 16 in 2000, and he didn’t launch Fortinbras – er, Facebook – until four years after the movie. Or did Almereyda know something we didn’t know?
That’s the nature of this movie. He represents humans and technology as on a collision course, much like Hamlet and Fortinbras, and he seems to know a lot more than he should. Digital phenomena confront all of the characters as they pace and shift in Manhattan from car phones, home DVD players, video cameras, consumer trackers, Blockbuster Video. Offscreen but casting a long shadow are the Twin Towers, which were of course not yet darkened in the tragedy – if not a Shakespearean, possibly Greek tragedy – that would befall them next year. New York is here, above all, temporary. Almereyda shot the film on film, but neither raw Super 8 nor 35mm glamor; he chose the 16mm in-between, which means the film’s appearance seems to suit its liminal period in film history as well. Each of his subsequent films, including You’re here, which came out last year and also starred Hawke (like Tesla) and MacLachlan (like Edison), was shot on digital video.
Unless I missed it, the skyline never appears in the movie, which favors the less familiar, tighter shots in Midtown and East Village. So the World Trade Center is really another ghost. I tend to watch 90s New York movies with suspicion, in case I see the towers on a stretch of the sky; these ghosts always look dumb and reckless in old movies, and I hate feeling powerless to warn them of what’s to come. That the facts of September 11 are known to all who see Hamlet 2000, except for those who saw him in his first 16 months before the attacks, adds heartbreak and liveliness to the way he’s playing now. If you follow the representations of New York in the film, you may even find that Hamlet 2000 is best seen by widening the recoil.