"To Be or Inter-Be": Almereyda's End-of-Millennium Hamlet1
Abbate, Alessandro, Literature/Film Quarterly
The most recent film version of Hamlet, by independent American director Michael Mmereyda (Nadja, 1994; Trance, 1998), locates the tragedy of the Prince of Dennark in New York City in the year 2000. Elsinore court is turned into a multimedia corporation, and we are given a very realistic cinematic representation of a postmodern world saturated with video technology. As Almereyda himself has noted, "There's hardly a single scene without a camera, a photograph, a TV monitor or electronic recording device of some kind" (Hamlet Headquarters).
The film uses the play's essential motif of Hamlet's quest-his search for proof of his uncle's crime, for moral transparency, for true mutuality, for a definitive answer to the question of existence-in order to address an end-of-millennium anxiety regarding the collapse of human relationships and the growth of personal alienation in a media-driven world of hi-tech communications.
Apart from attention, Hamlet's multiple searches entail clarity of mind and a capacity for discerning. At the beginning of the play (and the film), Hamlet tells his mother that he "knows not seems" (1.2.76). But Almereyda's film makes it very clear, on the contrary, that he is very well aware of "seems": this Hamlet is a would-be filmmaker, a young man obsessed with video images. He suffers from a sort of screen addiction. Wherever he goes he carries a portable video unit, a digital camera, and a palm monitor. Technological reproduction devices seem to be natural extensions of his body. How, under such circumstances, can he possibly know "where truth is hid" (2.2.158)? How can he discover the meaning of life in a situation like this, where life has become a matter of negotiation between essence and simulation; where reality and facade, being and performing, have blurred into one; and where human relationships have become a disembodied dial-up network? These are the issues that are central to Almereyda's film.
The director introduces Hamlet by having him deliver part of the "What a piece of work is a man" speech. In Shakespeare, the speech comes in the second scene of Act 2. By rearranging the text in this way, Almereyda contrives to tell us, from the outset, something essential about the psychological and emotional state of his protagonist: that is, he is a young man afflicted by sadness, confusion, and frustration. Moreover, the speech-originally part of a conversation between Hamlet and his fellow students from Wittenberg-becomes here a sort of technological soliloquy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern disappear. They are replaced by Hamlet's digital replication, and as a result, Hamlet's desire to open his heart to his old friends becomes solipsistic meditation. What we see is a virtual Hamlet talking to the real one-the flesh-and-blood Hamlet-from the screen of a portable video unit. Almost immediately, therefore, we have a glimpse of what Almereyda regards as the most problematic and paradoxical outcomes of a mass media and technological society. The problem, in this opening scene, is loneliness. Not only does Hamlet feel lonely, he is lonely. The paradox, on the other hand, lies in the fact that we have a virtual man, made up of pixels, voicing his skepticism about the human condition, about man, and the "quintessence of dust." A monitor man lecturing us on matters of conscience and spirit. To be sure, this paradox is a direct by-product of our hi-tech end-of-millennium society, one in which, as Jim Collins puts it, "television is often seen as the 'quintessence' of postmodern culture" (Storey 176).
Above all, Almereyda's Hamlet is an alienated young man.2 Melancholy and introversion are the consequences of a technological addiction that estranges him from other human beings, and blurs the borders between reality and .simulacra. Notwithstanding the recent family crisis-and the uncanny, disturbing revelations of the Ghost-he looks as though he lost his mirth well before his father's death. …