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Obedience And Madness

Cover image for podcast episode

It's all about obedience and madness with reviews of "The Experimenter" and National Theatre Live's "Hamlet" with Benedict Cumberbatch.

Show transcript

Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, I’m Beth Accomando. Today I want to talk about obedience and madness. Well sort of. Michael Almereyda has a new film out about social psychologist Stanley Milgram who conducted controversial experiments in the 1960s on obedience. Almerayda also filmed an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which the sanity of more than one character is questioned. And that leads me to a new adaptation of Hamlet featuring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Let’s start with Stanley Milgram and The Experimenter. The film opens in 1961 as test subjects are being prepped to partake in an experiment.

CLIP

Wait, did actor Peter Sarsgaard just turn to the audience and talk to us? As a matter of fact he did. Sarsgaard plays Milgram and during the course of the flm director Almerayda has him address the audience directly. In fact in once scene, Sarsgaard as Milgram walks down a hallway and tells us about who Milgram is…

CLIP

And as he talks there’s an elephant that follows him down the halls of academia. That’s right, an elephant and I am assuming it’s a metaphor to represent the old adage about the elephant in the room - that issue that everyone is acutely aware of, but nobody wants to talk about. Here it seems to revolve in part around the spark for his experiment, which grew out of his interest in Nazi Germany and trying to understand how people could obey orders so blindly. Milgram initially went into the experiment thinking most people would refuse to obey.

CLIP You accept responsibility

But he was wrong.

CLIP politely told to results are terrifying

But his research was not readily embraced or published. He even got push back from former mentors.

CLIP Why compelled to looks at negative of obedience, I feel dirty

And when he took on an assistant professor job even his students challenged his methods and the use of deception as part of the experiment.

CLIP Illusion can set the stage for revelation, to reveal some difficult to get at truths… you tricked them… Hello, today we will be doing an experiment about blind obedience and malevolent authority. I’d like you to pretend that this machine is administering painful shocks to a person in the other room. How truthful do you think that would be.

But some did recognize the significance of what he was doing.

CLIP Husband’s work is very important, how do these things happen

Director Michael Almereyda is as much an experimenter and illusionist as his subject. He delivers a clever film filled with deliberate artifice to demonstrate how relevant and challenging Milgram’s work still is. At times there is deliberately unconvincing rear screen projection as Milgram drives his car or a scene plays out against an obvious photograph that stands in for a real location. It’ has a theatrical or staged look and the contrivance calls attention to itself in a way that makes us think about the themes of the film.

There’s a line repeated in the film, a quote from Kierkegaard, life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards. The film takes its cue in part from that because although the story is told in a linear and chronological fashion, Milgram serves as our narrator but with the knowledge of what already happens at the end.

Almerayda’s approach is fascinating works effectively to provide insights into Milgram the man and into the techniques he used in his research. The sad thing is that we still see examples of unquestioning obedience. But Milgram did find hope in his study as well.

CLIP 65% obedient, but 35% resisted, example of man

The Experimenter opens Friday at Landmark’s Ken Cinema.

And now let’s talk Hamlet. Almerayda gave us an inspired by flawed film adaptation of Hamlet in 2000 starring Ethan Hawk. He updated the setting to the present day and did clever things like have Ophelia wear a wire when trying to get information for her father about whether Hamlet was mad or not. Almerayda also had Hawk deliver the To Be or not to be speech while standing in the action film aisle of a video store.

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This month we get Benedict Cumberbatch, the new Sherlock, as the melancholy Dane in the Natinal Theater Live production of Hamlet that will have single screenings at rather random theater next week.

Every generation serves up its own Hamlet and Cumberbatch definitely has the acting chops to be a defining one. Here’s a snippet of his performance, delivering the famous what a piece of work is man speech in the trailer for the film.

CLIP

Unfortunately, Lyndsey Turner is not the director to deliver a definitive production. Here are the major flaws with her production. The setting has been updated to some vague period setting but without any real vision for why the change has been made. She randomly casts a black actor as the brother for a white Ophelia, and the choice adds no insights to the role, a black Horatio would have made more sense and would not come across as mere racial stunt casing. Her interpretation of how to present Ophelia results in one of the most infuriatingly bad Ophelias I have ever seen. I couldn’t wait for her to off herself. As played by Sian Brooke, Ophelia is mousy, fragile and broken from the beginning and is nothing but a mass of nervous tics. I have to say that one of the best Ophelias ever was Helena Bonham Carter in Franco Zefirrelli’s Hamlet with Mel Gibson as a kind of action version of the Danish Prince.

Even in madness Bonham Carter’s Ophelia had strength and intelligence. Brooke’s version in this new production is pathetic.

But the production does have Cumberbatch and he is brilliant. He handles famous speeches like To be or not to be with freshness so we feel like the lines are new. He displays an energy and wit that Hamlet is often denied in favor of melancholia. Turner also gives us a strong and demanding ghost and a set design that plays up a sense of gothic horror.

Despite its flaws, the National Theater Live production of Hamlet is compelling to watch and as it stands it’s the only way you can see Cumberbatch in the role and that’s something any fan of the Bard will want to take in.

Thanks for listening to the KPBS cinema junkie podcast. Check back every week for new episodes featuring film reviews, interviews, and discussions. Every Friday in October the topic will be horror. This week I will take you behind the scenes of Re-Animator the Musucal and next week will explore what people recall as the first films to scare them. You can also catch up with my podcasts about Clive Barker, Surgeon’s Hall Museum, and The Babadook.

So 'till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place