Digital Ghosts: Hamlet (2000) and K Street (2003)

by Ryan Sherwood

“I will watch tonight. Perchance

‘Twill walk again.” —Hamlet, Hamlet, Act I Scene II

 

There is a mini-canon of popular films released in the early-to-mid-2000s—among them Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (2006)—that supposedly “got” the incipient digital revolution in ways that are easy to explain with a few updated references to Walter Benjamin and the negative example of Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (dir. George Lucas, 2002). Somehow, the directors of these films were ahead of their time in their grasp of video technology as more than a recording device, making extraordinary use of its capabilities as well as its limitations within an unimpeachable pop framework—as opposed to something groundbreaking but abstruse like Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001). Yet it is two somewhat less obvious works from this period that have stayed with me for their rather lugubrious response to this cinematic sea change, both of them obliquely associating celluloid’s acquiescence to video with some sort of filial betrayal warranting a visit from beyond the grave. 

Having spent the 90s as an arthouse also-ran, his films often received as imbrications on the styles of David Lynch and/or Hal Hartley, writer-director Michael Almereyda heralded the dawn of the new millennium with a present-day, NYC-set 2000 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Almereyda’s two best movies up to that point, the cheap and talky Another Girl, Another Planet (1992) and the Lynch-produced vampire drama Nadja (1994) had been shot in black-and-white, on a Fisher-Price PXL2000 and on 35mm, respectively. Narratively slack, image-drunk, and highly camera-conscious, Almereyda’s early aesthetic was appreciatively described by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as “actually [seeming] to resemble the inside of someone’s head.” Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke, was filmed in color on Super 16mm, but this choice comes across as no kind of capitulation to the mainstream, especially when viewed today. Like those earlier works, Hamlet bursts with screen proliferation to a near-Godardian degree—surveillance footage, polaroid photos, home movies, soliloquies delivered as video diary entries—and the warmth and depth of the photography beautifully contextualizes the then-prophetic, now-quaint vision of digital overflow.

Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)

Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)

Among Almereyda’s most notable flourishes is his warping of the entrance of the Ghost of King Hamlet (Sam Shepard). About twenty minutes into the film, the Ghost first appears to Horatio (Karl Geary), his girlfriend “Marcella” (Paula Malcolmson), and security guard Barnardo (Rome Neal) on closed-circuit TV, caught riding the elevator up from the basement of the Hotel Elsinore.

Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)

Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)

Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)

The eventual meeting of the Ghost and Prince Hamlet will unfold quite conventionally, with Shepard perhaps delivering the film’s richest “Shakespearean” performance, in quite a different register than Bill Murray’s hilariously underplayed Polonius or Julia Stiles’ implosive Ophelia. The Ghost will also appear, right on cue, to admonish young Hamlet during the bedroom interrogation of Gertrude (Dianne Venora).

Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)

Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)

But there remains the sense that Almereyda, once he had reduced this figure to a few squiggly lines of video, knew he had let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak—that to set him free in the digital realm was actually to condemn him to the ultimate permutation of Gilles Deleuze’s any-space-whatever. When, late in the film, we see the Ghost “freed” from Shakespeare’s text, partially transparent, sitting forlornly at Marcella’s bedside, we realize what “the secrets of [his] prison house” might be in the context of the Digital—essentially a reworking of the plot hook of Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), in which a man sent to the electric chair somehow “becomes” electricity.

Hamlet (dir. Michael Almereyda, 2000)


“It don’t smell in Denmark but it sure as hell smells in Manhattan somewhere.” —James Carville, K Street

A few years after Almereyda, Steven Soderbergh also probed the intersection of the digital and the purgatorial, also within the context of an Oedipal murder plot. His tepidly received series K Street, which ran for ten weeks on HBO in the summer of 2003, is remembered today—if at all—for its high-concept merging of fact and fiction: set in the world of DC lobbyists, each (largely improvised) episode was outlined, filmed, and edited within days of its airdate, with storylines often “responding” to such current events as Democratic Primary debates and the gubernatorial candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The series starred Beltway power couple James Carville and Mary Matalin as “themselves” and featured cameo appearances by such notables as Howard Dean, Donna Brazile, Joe Kline, and Tucker Carlson. Even the show’s most ardent champion, critic Amy Taubin, focused mainly on its fact-as-fiction approach when naming it the best “movie” of the year:

What would Andy Warhol be interested in if he were alive today? K Street […] is the ultimate postmodern object, the proof that the camera creates its own reality, making fact and fiction inoperable categories and performance the only reality […] The likes of Barbara Boxer, Charles Schumer, and Rick Santorum have proved as adept at buying into the “as if” of an improvisation as Edie Sedgewick and Ondine, although the series has yet to find its Viva […] K Street is itself a hypothetical that, in the simulacrum of television, is as close to the truth of politics as anyone gets.  

Viewed on DVD today, however, the series’ topicality and its subversion of documentary convention are perhaps less captivating and meaningful than is Soderbergh’s formal doodling, the exhilaration communicated with every camera placement, smash edit, and curious color scheme; as the series progresses, such formal invention increasingly serves as a kind of relay between the documentary element and the transparently fictional structuring narratives. If the series ever receives widespread reappraisal, it will likely have something to do with the (fictional) character of Richard Bergstrom (Elliot Gould), a hypochondriacal, TV-addicted Manhattan billionaire who, for a laugh, brings the entire Washington power structure to its knees and sends the Department of Justice on the wildest of goose chases. Then there is the storyline centering on junior lobbyist Tommy Flannegan (John Slattery, exploring a looser, more intriguing version of the quippy jerk he would play on the critical smash Mad Men) and his visions of the (un)dead.

K Street (HBO, 2003)

K Street (HBO, 2003)

Throughout the series’ first two episodes, Flannegan oscillates between moments of focused, cool professionalism and curious disassociation, at one point prompting Carville’s vocal concern. In Episode Two, he helms a focus group initiative on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), peering through two-way glass while groups of teenagers are questioned as to their sense of moral culpability in the nascent .mp3 scourge. With characters often filmed through glass so that they mingle with the reflections of onlookers and ever-present TV monitors, this episode doubles down on a mise-en-scène that is variously banal, alluring, and migraine-inducing, given Soderbergh’s meticulously indifferent camera placement and reliance on natural light. The visual schema pays off beautifully when, late in the episode, Flannegan receives his first two visions of the mysterious “Woman in Red” (Jennice Fuentes), each mediated by at least one layer of glass. Future visitations will always be glimpsed through a window or in the glow of a television screen.

K Street (HBO, 2003)

K Street (HBO, 2003)

K Street (HBO, 2003)

K Street (HBO, 2003)

These visions register as glitches in the show’s aesthetic surface, a comforting but meretricious patina of realism always one hiccup away from spiraling into vertiginous subjectivity. This is precisely what Flannigan’s mental breakdown precipitates as it intersects with an escalating sex addiction. Notes scholar Steven M. Sanders, “[w]hen Tommy goes into darkened corridors or into the night in search of a prostitute, Soderbergh, with his trusty handheld, goes with him, and Tommy’s sense of alienation and the illicit sex are captured by those narrow spaces and darkness.” Bizarrely angled close-ups and blurry point-of-view shots play off the character’s “affectless expression indicative of the “low-key naturalistic approach” Soderbergh seems to be after.”

K Street (HBO, 2003)

K Street (HBO, 2003)

By Episode 9, enough flashbacks have accrued to help us identify the Woman In Red and her relationship to Flannegan. In life she was Anna, his future stepmother, with whom he had a spontaneous affair during a business trip to New York City; immediately afterwards, she committed suicide in her hotel bathroom with an overdose of sleeping pills, and Tommy, upon discovering her body the next morning, fled the scene. The viewer cannot be certain where the act of quasi-incest or the subsequent flight fit on the moral compass of a DC lobbyist (even during an interrogation by FBI agents the event is somewhat downplayed), but Anna’s ghost does seem to contribute to the loosening of his grip on reality. By her last appearance in Episode 10, in a Las Vegas hotel room where Flannegan has just had a dalliance with two prostitutes, his expression reflects more comfort than bemusement. Throughout the flashback episodes, the red of Anna’s dress has been matched by the walls and/or lighting of every interior, offering a gorgeous contrast to the office setting’s blankness and recalling the set design of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), which critics have often described as “uterine.” One of K Street’s final shots foregrounds the dress; the camera pans slightly so that it fills the screen, wiping away Flannegan’s vacant half-smile.

K Street (HBO, 2003)

K Street (HBO, 2003)

K Street (HBO, 2003)

Like Almereyda’s iteration of Hamlet’s Ghost, Soderbergh’s Woman in Red suggests a kind of digital immanence. It is as though video’s promise of unmediated, amoral, effortlessly mobile objectivity has in fact led us beyond the unknowable into the unthinkable. Within their respective fictions, these ghosts can only expose sin and initiate disaster. What message they have for us, the audience, on this side of the digital revolution, is perhaps no less dire.