Friday, May 9, 2014

Disparate Gazes: Camera Styles in Hamlet

A security camera’s viewfinder frames the empty hallway. Cautiously, a guard trudges down the corridor. The camera pans to track him. After setting the stage in the castle’s night-emptied halls, we are introduced to Horatio, Barnardo, and Marcellus using an over-the-shoulder shot which operates almost as a fourth person eavesdropping on the trio. As the three men huddle together, their retelling of the previous night’s events is interrupted by an abrupt switch to a first-person handheld shot. This viewpoint stalks slowly towards the murmuring group, who quickly turn in terror, shying away from the unseen arrival. Horatio stammers out a command to speak, but the apparition—Hamlet Senior’s ghost—ignores him and departs. Once again the point of view switches abruptly, back to the security camera. Three men stand together, terrified, in an empty hallway. 

So begins the Royal Stage Company’s 2009 adaptation of Hamlet. This opening scene sets the stage for the three primary camera styles used throughout the adaptation: Traditional over-the-shoulder shots, high-angle security feeds, and first-person handheld. These three styles represent the three methods by which Horatio might attempt to fulfill Hamlet’s dying wish and tell the prince’s story truthfully as a man’s quest for revenge, rather than mere madness. In fact, the entire adaptation might be the aftermath of Horatio’s attempt to piece together the events of Hamlet’s downfall using camera stock and visual reproductions of witness testimony.

Throughout the adaptation, security cameras perched high in the rooms play the part of an objective observer, noting the hard facts of what occurs, the actions taken—Hamlet’s various killings, the play and Claudius’ departure, Laertes’ rebellion, the climactic duel-suicide-murder-deathstravaganza. In the first two acts, clips from these cameras frame each scene, acting as literally black-and-white bookends to the emotions contained within. Almost all of the security feeds feature long to extreme-long shots which create a distance between the camera and the action to serve as a metaphor for the security camera’s detachment. Additionally, the high angle of the shots implies an observer raised above the action and possessing a grasp of the big picture—a textbook definition of objectivity. 

By their nature, these security feeds are the most objective means through which Horatio can piece together the whole truth of what occurred during Hamlet’s vengeance in order to, as Hamlet asked, “report me and my cause aright” (5.2). However, even this source of objectivity is incomplete, for there is no sound. So while the viewers—and Horatio—might see what occurs, they can only grasp at the root causes of a given action. All of Hamlet’s soliloquys are delivered to empty rooms, framed at either end by cuts of film from the security feeds, but while the viewers must necessarily hear what Hamlet is saying, the security cameras do not. This results in the cameras capturing a man ranting to himself, gesturing and weeping, but not the context for such actions. These recordings would support the popular assumption that Hamlet was mad, not driven by revenge. 

(Just look at that face. He couldn't POSSIBLY be crazy.)

Rendering the tale even more incomplete, the security camera does not reveal the catalyst of Hamlet’s murderous revenge: In true ghost fashion, Hamlet Senior’s does not appear on security footage. We have only the consensus of soldiers—loyal to the crown—and Horatio—Hamlet’s closest friend—that such a ghost exists. When searching for proof of Hamlet’s allegations about Claudius to bolster his retelling, Horatio would require something more than the word of a few shaken soldiers. Instead, Horatio would need to acquire testimony from multiple sources to eliminate any source of bias. 

Coincidentally, the most common camera angle found in Hamlet is the shoulder-height shot that serves both as the audience’s viewpoint and as the viewpoint of a non-participating witness. This camera style primarily occurs during scenes with characters who survive to the final scene—Horatio, Osric, the two clowns, the players—people who saw part of Hamlet’s tragedy, but not all. This, then, represents the testimonies Horatio might gather in support of his quest to honor Hamlet’s wishes. As such, the camera style is steady, with none of the wobble found in the first-person shots, but similarly lacking the omniscient angle of the security feeds. This represents the position of the courtiers and hangers-on of Denmark’s court; they are neither directly involved in the action nor completely removed from it. 

But as with the security feeds, these witnesses have an incomplete perspective. Barnardo and Marcellus were present when Hamlet encountered his father’s ghost. However, they did not hear what the ghost told Hamlet, merely that they were sworn to secrecy. The courtiers present at the play saw Hamlet’s madness (real or feigned), as well as Claudius’ unfavorable reaction to the play’s content, but from that knowledge might come an entirely different assumption. Namely, that Hamlet went mad; Claudius, afraid that Hamlet intended regicide or rebellion, banished and attempted to murder Hamlet; Hamlet found out, and murdered Claudius. This sort of testimony would not suit Horatio’s goal either. 

Several witnesses knew that Hamlet was feigning madness for some purpose: Hamlet himself, Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Barnardo, and Marcellus. However, three of those, being dead, would make poor witnesses. Horatio knows that Hamlet used his madness for revenge, and Barnardo and Marcellus knew that Hamlet’s insanity was an act. These three, though, are the witnesses to the least-believable part of Hamlet’s tale, the ghost. This, combined with Horatio’s closeness to Hamlet, and their speech with him on the night of the ghost’s appearance, might give the impression that they are conspirators, perhaps in a rebellion to put Hamlet on the throne, attempting to hide their traces. In other words, to report Hamlet’s cause, Horatio must turn to yet other sources to complete the jigsaw puzzle of Hamlet’s actions.
Horatio has one final option in his quest to sort out everything that occurs between Hamlet’s encounter with his ghostly father and the catastrophic final duel that eliminates the royal family: Hamlet’s own video recordings. Seeming to anticipate Horatio’s need for proof, Hamlet began to videotape anything tangent to Claudius’ guilt with a handheld 8mm camera. Initially, Hamlet used the camera only to corroborate Claudius’ reaction to the kingkilling play. However, almost immediately, the mad prince turns the camera lens upon himself. Through the gritty, jittery film, we see Hamlet’s fifth, sixth, and seventh soliloquies, a portrait of a disintegrating mind seen through a grimy projection. Their shakiness and low-quality are an outward expression of Hamlet’s interior unease. Additionally, these handheld recordings are some of the only shots in the film featuring canted angles—a sure indicator of madness.

(Hence Battlefield Earth featuring massive amounts of canted angles. It's completely loco.)

These tapes would provide Horatio with the most solid explanation of Hamlet’s behavior, for in two of the soliloquies captured by the handheld camera, Hamlet directly addresses his goal: Avenging his father’s murder. In 3.3, Hamlet addresses the lens with: Now might I do it pat, now he is praying, and now I’ll do’t, and so he goes to heaven, and so am I revenged. That would be scanned. A villain kills my father, and for that, I his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven (3.3). 

Again in 4.4 he mutters, “How stand I, then, that have a father killed, a mother stained” (4.4). Both of these statements elucidate Hamlet’s purpose of revenge and would serve to prove that he was acting alone, freeing anyone else from censure. Combined with the factual evidence available, as well as witness testimony, this would explain with reasonable clarity the purpose and timeline of what occurred during Hamlet’s quest for vengeance. 

However, there is a catch. Just before confronting Laertes at Ophelia’s grave, Hamlet tosses the handheld camera away, into a cluster of bushes. Luckily enough, Horatio was there to see Hamlet do so, but this raises a question: Was Hamlet sincere in his request to have Horatio ravel out the truth? After all, couldn’t he have simply handed Horatio the camera? Indeed, Hamlet’s indecision about this extends back further—during 2.2 immediately after the players, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern depart, he smashes a security camera before declaring, “Now I am alone” (2.2). Clearly, he has frequently wavered throughout the film between wanting a private, mysterious revenge, and wishing his motives to be known. 

In the end, however, if this interpretation of the film is followed, Horatio has indeed carried out Hamlet’s wishes and reconstructed the events that occurred using security footage, Hamlet’s leftover recordings, and witness testimony. This leaves us with a film adaptation of Hamlet that is excellent in its own right, but also, possibly, an adaptation that represents the near-impossibility of a task that would await Horatio in carrying out Hamlet’s dying command. Even with pseudo-modern security cameras and other recording devices, the task would be monumental. For a “historical” Horatio to reconstruct all of Hamlet’s private motivations… Small surprise he wished to follow Hamlet to the grave! 

(You might say he...wasn't crazy about the idea. YEAAAAAAAAAAH!)

Works Cited
Hamlet. Dir. Gregory Doran. Perf. David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, et. al. BBC 2, 2009. Film. 

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2008. 1696-1784.