What a piece of work is a man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty. In form, in moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a God. The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
So says young prince Hamlet. I like to imagine William Shakespeare’s iconic figure saying these words with a wry smile, approaching the world and all its people, places, and things within it with a sense of humor. Certainly, Michael Almereyda did in his screen adaptation of Hamlet (2000). His handling of the material ebbs and flows with Hamlet’s contradictions, and also becomes representative of this director’s idiosyncratic body of work. Almereyda’s films are in a constant state of zigzag between the intellectual and the emotional, the swift and the lethargic, the epic and the everyday, the ironic and the sincere. What do you expect from a guy who went to Harvard, one of the most prestigious schools in the United States, only to drop out and pursue a career making motion pictures? Talk about combining the highbrow and the lowbrow.
Almereyda moved to New York, working on a screenplay about the inventor of modern electricity, Nikola Tesla. That unproduced script secured him a literary agent and Almereyda went off to Hollywood, becoming a script doctor for hire. Some of his dialogue remains in Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), perhaps more so than in his credited work on a botched sci-fi comedy called Cherry 2000 (Steve De Jarnatt, 1987). He penned the first draft of Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders, 1991) and scripts for renowned filmmakers Tim Burton and David Lynch. While this allowed Almereyda the opportunity to meet some of his contemporaries, he found the screenwriter’s trade disenfranchising. The Lynch and Burton films were never made.
His first attempt at directing was a 35mm short called A Hero in Our Time (1985), based on the story by Mikhail Lermontov. What resulted was a Los Angeles film noir starring Dennis Hopper, but one that Almereyda didn’t have the resources to properly finish. He went from that to his wildly uneven first feature, Twister (1990), a project plagued with difficulties. This portrait of a dysfunctional family in the Midwest featured an excellent cast of character actors: Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, Suzy Amis, Tim Robbins, even a cameo by William S. Burroughs. But it never finds its visual or metaphorical footing, cursed by an inappropriate soundtrack and too-quirky characters that rarely feel grounded in emotional reality. It’s more interesting as an entry point for Almereyda, his initial dealings with the comedy of miscommunication and tragedy of familial struggle that runs throughout his work.
Unable to raise money for other projects after the Twister debacle, Almereyda was faced with the reality of scaling back if he wanted to continue making films. With no budget, no producers, and complete creative freedom, he drew inspiration from the black-and-white video diaries of experimental filmmaker Sadie Benning. These lyrical, often autobiographical short subjects were made for virtually nothing with the PXL-2000—a $45 Fisher-Price camera intended as a kid’s toy, now discontinued. This portable camera has an incredibly limited depth of field, the image breaking down into abstractions. But it’s also quite flat and painterly, somehow ideal for dreamy shots of faces and objects that drift in and out of sharpness.
Almereyda’s first hour-long featurette to utilize Pixelvision, Another Girl, Another Planet (1992), delights in close-ups of blurred activity. The downtown characters constantly light fresh cigarettes, their matches causing bright onscreen blurs. Almereyda impishly follows the minutiae of late night interactions: the fast, hurtling motion of a pinball game, and the slow momentousness of a young man pushing an ashtray over to a new girlfriend. Speed and slowness go side by side, or as the title character in his follow-up film Nadja (1994) says, “Here you feel so many things rushing together. It all comes alive after midnight.”
As Another Girl, Another Planet‘s hapless protagonist Bill (Barry Sherman) thinks back on relationships with girlfriends past, the Pixelvision might be read as the haziness of his memory drifting away from romantic love. As the characters break out into poetic litanies about pain and desire (“I wasn’t used to being happy. It was somehow exhausting,”) music becomes the tool to express their feelings. As one relationship crumbles apart, Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s ferocious “The Mercy Seat” drives hard through the scene as Bill fiddles with lit matches. During a tender kiss between boy and girl, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” opines in the background.
The music feels like found art, but lest we get too esoteric Almereyda undercuts these philosophical monologues and idyllic Pixel-portraits with wry humor. As the oblivious lovers kiss, their pal (Nic Ratner) sits on the other end of the same couch. It’s that familiar party moment: bored, smoking, waiting for your friends to finish their smooch so you can talk to them again. Nothing deflates false sentiment faster than a well-timed gag.
There are more nightlights, cityscapes, party folk, and clever gags in Nadja, Almereyda’s contemporary New York remake of Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936). The count’s poor little rich girl offspring (Elina Lowensohn), drifts through the movie brooding yet vivacious. Her witty dialogue makes playful use of romantic suffering, pining away lines like, “I need to simplify my life.” As she drifts through the somnambulant world of Almereyda, wrapped in a hooded cloak like one of the Bronte sisters, she’s more petulant club kid than bloodsucking fiend.
Nadja is a vampire film like Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) is science fiction. Though it embraces genre conventions through Gothic imagery, iridescent black-and-white photography, fight and flight sequences through the shadowed streets, and a climactic pursuit to a Transylvanian castle, Nadja is intended as a comedy. The characters all seem to be moving at different speeds: Peter Fonda’s aging rock star variation on Van Helsing seems to be wrapped up in his own problems, babbling about vampire lore and spouting postmodern non-sequitors (“He was like Elvis in the end,” he mutters, recalling his final battle with a world-wearied Dracula). Trying to get away from it all are the well intentioned, struggling lovers Jim and Lucy (Martin Donovan and Galaxy Craze), who spend most of the movie trapped in a slapstick brain fog from psychic trauma. Nadja’s brother (Jared Harris) spends half the movie in a near-comatose state while her slave Renfield (Kurt Geary) moves faster than the camera can keep up with. As the tagline for the movie goes, the dead travel fast.
The signature shot of Nadja is of Almereyda’s party girl vampire gliding along in the foreground through a long alleyway, while in the background—running at top speed but hindered by slow motion—are her pursuers. Almereyda said of this image, “In some ways it encapsulates the feelings that are at the core of the film, not being able to catch up with the thing you’re pursuing. The faster you run, the farther away it gets.” (1) The breaking of cinematic time carries through the fight scenes, where Almereyda seems so bored by the conventions of action films he cuts out all the fighting. Characters often black out along with the movie, skipping the violence only to wake up afterwards in unlikely places, like Van Helsing awakening under the lid of a piano. His befuddled look seems to say, “How did this happen? Ah, well.”
There’s also the incorporation of Pixelvision as a “vampire’s eye view”, taking us out of traditional film stock into a more surreal, otherworldly way of seeing. Cutting back and forth, often within the same scene, becomes jarring and keeps the viewer slightly disoriented. It’s fitting style for the supernatural film—and also for the self-imposed dreaminess of falling in love, or even the giddy confusion of excessive drinking. It’s the language of dreams, or daydreams, or maybe madness. (As if to tip his hat to his executive producer and fellow dream weaver, Almereyda gives David Lynch a cameo as a morgue security guard.)
While Nadja played at the Sundance Film Festival, Almereyda preoccupied himself with making a short documentary called At Sundance (1995) as a means of survival. With media hype and business transactions happening all around him, perhaps he found it comforting to individually meet a group of filmmakers including Atom Egoyan, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, and Matthew Harrison. Almereyda put his camera on them, and they spoke about the movie business. Most of the interviewees are chatty and effusive, speaking as artists struggling to maintain their individual voice within a popular medium.
In 1997, between larger projects, Almereyda made a short, no-budget Pixel adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s short story The Rocking Horse Winner. Relocating the story from a British estate to the sunny poolsides of bourgeois California, playtime is never far removed from a child’s fantasies and a wealthy family’s boredom. A clairvoyant boy is able to predict the results of horse races, and his trace-like state is augmented by the flickering use of Pixelvision.
Eric Stoltz gives a priceless, carefree performance as the kid’s unscrupulous uncle, whose obsessive mixing of cocktails is in counterpoint to shaking the Magic Eightball for answers to the unknown (shake it up and it says, “Yes, definitely,” or “Try Again” or “Remains Unclear.”) The occult aspects of the story never stray too far from the everyday objects at our fingertips, which lends the movie its touch of bittersweet humor. Almereyda often uses magic tricks in his films: Hamlet makes a chess piece disappear on-camera; a character in Happy Here and Now (2002) pulls a bunny from an empty box.
Almereyda’s Rocking Horse likewise sprung from chance while he was house sitting in Los Angeles, yet again frustrated in his efforts to make a full feature. He found the Lawrence story in an anthology, and considered the story not only magical but also deeply personal. He explained:
[It] seemed to be about the differences between privilege and luck. Here I was…staying in houses with maids, gardens, and pools, but I felt deeply unlucky, unable to make a movie. I recognized myself in the story, and saw how I could throw a short film together while waiting for bigger things. Instead of waiting for bigger things. (2)
The struggles of the independent filmmaker are typified in Almereyda’s second attempt at riffing on monster movies: The Eternal (1998, also known as Trance.) Making a deal with Trimark to craft a mummy movie on his own terms, Almereyda quickly discovered that he and the studio were working at cross-purposes. Without final cut and saddled with compromises, Almereyda found The Eternal to be an underwhelming experience. Much like the drunken characters wandering through the film’s haunted house, the movie falls off the tracks of coherence midway through.
Nevertheless, there is much in The Eternal to enjoy. Following a hard-drinking couple called Jim and Nora (Jared Harris and Alison Elliott) on their trip from modern New York to the old country of Ireland, the opening third is wildly funny in the tradition of The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934). This gimlet eyed couple’s endlessly quotable dialogue (“In much the same way the spider is not an insect but an animal, Guinness is not strictly speaking alcohol. It’s food!”) and the inspired use of frequent Almereyda collaborator Jim Denault’s cinematography keep The Eternal on the fast track.
The magnificent opening credits sequence, a slow motion close-up on Jim and Nora on a roller coaster summons up the mood of a happy drunken joyride even as Cat Power’s ballad “Rocket” sets a haunting mood. Once again, music becomes central to Almereyda’s characters: Nora rediscovers an old boyfriend while standing by the jukebox; Jim and Nora take a break from the creepy house by putting on a Joe Dolan record and breaking out into a spontaneous dance. As if on cue, that’s when creepy uncle Christopher Walken comes waltzing in saying, “I’m so happy!”
For a movie that’s ultimately about a Druidic mummy causing havoc, Almereyda’s wild digressions (with characters he clearly has affection for) keep The Eternal watchable even as it spirals out of control. Once men with guns start breaking through the windows and elaborate booby traps are being placed for the mummy, Almereyda has wandered into the familiar genre movie territory he had previously subverted in Nadja. Almereyda seems more comfortable with genre as a frame of reference to be commented on; as he does in his modern day Hamlet by having the Melancholy Dane deliver his “To be or not to be” monologue in the Action aisle of Blockbuster Video.
This sets the stage (or screen, as it were) for a Hamlet for the information age. From its opening scene of the young prince (Ethan Hawke) dabbling in Sadie Benning-style Pixelvision diaries to a press conference held by Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), CEO of the Denmark Corporation, video is everywhere. Television screens and monitors, Times Square telescreens, security cameras, found footage, and news programming all interweave themselves into a movie that could have been called Hamlet 2000. Like Godard, he fuses the ancient with the contemporary by unapologetically setting his story in the present day. Almereyda confirms, “It’s unmistakably a Hamlet of its time which is already shifting into another time. I would make a different Hamlet this year.” (3)
If Hamlet seems more surefooted than Almereyda’s other work, it could be because the story of Hamlet is part of our mass consciousness. It can be relocated to any time or place without hindering its design, and in fact can be used as a tool for Almereyda to express his own feelings about where we are now. Ethan Hawke’s slacker intellectual sifts through his memories and recollections by capturing them on his Pixel camera. In this way, he’s the prototypical Almereyda protagonist.
Like the characters in Nadja and The Eternal, Hamlet is part of a dysfunctional family with an archaic history. He’s also a video artist, responding to his role in history as surely as the journeymen in Alexander Sokurov’s (digital video) movie Russian Ark (2002). “It’s not just the history of art,” Almereyda said, referring to his Harvard experience as an art history student. “It’s history as it sweeps along, as artists react to specific times and events. You start out looking at Impressionist paintings and then discover there was something called the Franco-Prussian War. All sorts of complications pile up.” (4) Perhaps there’s something to be said about responding to the past from the present; as video becomes the predominant visual medium, it’s a new format responding to the old. Almereyda’s Hamlet rests on that threshold, and on the dawn of a new century.
So how does the future look from here? The optimistic title of Almereyda’s latest film is Happy Here and Now, a romantic jazz riff that again dabbles in modern technology. This time, it is cyberspace. A young woman named Amelia (Liane Balaban) goes to New Orleans in search of her missing sister. She involves herself in a multimedia quest that has her plugging into the computer, able to build a composite identity. The movie takes place in some unspecified future, or maybe the present, where computer users are able to use different faces and voices online using an audio-visual virtual reality program.
As she interacts with an Internet ghost named Eddie Mars (Karl Geary, if his character’s face is to be trusted), she comes to realize the truth of that Oscar Wilde quote: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” Are the eyes to be trusted? Happy leaves that question hanging in the air, as characters remind themselves not to judge books by their covers. Characters seeming to be one thing (a killer, a barfly, a Termite control employee) turn out to be something entirely different (a rescuer, a club owner, and a musician, in this case). An early clue to this mysterious travelogue: “You’ve heard of the French Quarter?” asks Amelia’s uncle Bill (Clarence Williams III), driving her through an unfamiliar part of town. “Well, this ain’t the French Quarter.” Like finding out new things about new people, Almereyda explores hidden parts of New Orleans that you wouldn’t find on the postcards.
Happy Here and Now, like all of Almereyda’s film, has intellectual trappings but is fundamentally an emotion picture. Moving away from the cold metallic skyscrapers of Hamlet, Almereyda dives into the vivid colors and homegrown music of New Orleans. Local musicians and personalities play themselves, filling out the cast and allowing for some finger snappin’ musical numbers along the way. In a movie that explodes with ideas, it’s also about people somehow finding their ways together through the use of technology. How strange that being alone at our computers might be the thing that brings us all closer together, and how wonderful when those people discover they aren’t alone.
This indefatigable filmmaker continues onward, already in post-production on a documentary about Sam Shepard and his recent play, The Late Henry Moss. Though he’s often self-deprecating in interviews, bemusedly saying he’s just getting started in his career and wishes he’d made twice as many films by now, Almereyda’s been surprisingly prolific in his time. The best thing that can be said is that his work, while comparable in some ways to Hal Hartley, David Lynch, and Jean Cocteau, remains distinctively his own. Continually weaving the threads of romanticism, metaphoric time travel, expressionistic audio-visual dreamscapes, and a passion for alternative music into his movies-as-tapestries, one wonders how much longer Almereyda’s movies will slip in under the pop culture radar. As in The Rocking Horse Winner, the future remains uncertain—but if Almereyda shakes the Magic Eightball, let’s hope the answer he comes up with is, “Please try again.”
Films directed by director:
A Hero of Our Time (1985) also writer
Twister (1990) also writer
Another Girl, Another Planet (1992) also producer, writer
Nadja (1994) also writer
At Sundance (1995)
The Rocking Horse Winner (1997) also writer
The Eternal, a/k/a Trance (1998) also writer
Hamlet (2000) also screen adaptation
Happy Here and Now (2002) also writer
This So-Called Disaster (2003)
William Eggleston in the Real World (2005)
Cherry 2000 (Steve De Jarnatt, 1987) writer
Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders, 1991) writer
Search and Destroy (David Salle, 1991) writer
Mario Falsetto, Personal Vision: Conversations with Contemporary Film Directors, Silman-James Press, 2000
Jeremiah Kipp, “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later”, Guerrilla Filmmaker, 2001, pp. 31-32, 54, 60
Compiled by author
The Films of Michael Almereyda
Resource site for Almereyda fans.
Hollywood.com Celebrity Biography: Michael Almereyda
Biography of Almereyda.
Iran 2000: Part 1
An amusing article about film critic Godfrey Cheshire bringing Almereyda to Iran to screen Hamlet.
Prince of New York
Amy Taubin interviews Almereyda.
Click here to search for Michael Almereyda DVDs, videos and books at