EESE 4/2010


The Postmodern
Video Clip
and its Effects

Frederike Schlünder





1. Introduction

Over the course of time, the paradigms in intermediality have shifted. The technological progress has made that possible. However, the question is whether the recipient of the work in question is willing to accept the end-product. It is the same with the shift from a written medium to an audio-visual one. Many film adaptations have come under criticism, for they only fulfil the very own vision of a director. William Shakespeare's Hamlet, which belongs without a doubt to the classical pieces of literature and is even said to be the "[...] most adapted play in the world"[1] has undergone the same. However, it has been argued that "[...] narrative does not refer to the story, but also to the process of telling that makes the story intelligible to an audience."[2] If so, is it possible to adapt a piece of literature without the loss of its function or main message? In Michael Almereyda's Hamlet there is yet another paradigm shift: from telling the story audio-visually to showing the story in the form of a video clip. The clip constitutes a cut within the ordinary progression of the film. This term paper attempts to analyse this clip concerning its consequences on the reception of the play.

The first part of this paper will deal with the postmodern video clip and its particularities. Furthermore, it will be explained how one should approach an analysis of such a clip and what one has to pay attention to. The next part of the paper will be concerned with the analysis of such a video clip, namely the one which Almereyda used for the realisation of his 'Mousetrap Scene'. It will be looked at in detail, regarding the following aspects: camera, sounds, and function. The aspect of the function is particularly important, since it is this which connects the particular intermedium with the rest of the film and gives clues as to why Almereyda interrupts the progression and whether he has had other intentions with his adaptation of Hamlet. The conclusion will summarise the arguments given in the term paper and refer to the thesis stated above as to whether the process of telling a story is as crucial for the intelligibility as the story itself.

2. The Postmodern Video Clip

In today's pop culture, the postmodern medium and most recent development in the visual arts is the video clip. Its most prominent feature is brevity. The clips consist of sequences of pictures and music which support and deliver their message. In order to do so, high speed image and meaning production also provide hidden meanings which rush to the viewers' minds in the form of particles of information and associations. The so-called '"MTV-style"'[3] is constituted of highly compacted, fast and diversified narrative picture-sound-language.[4] Therefore, the clip can tell an entire story within a couple of minutes.

In order for the clip to fulfil its function, the montage is crucial. Faulstich (2002) describes montage as the connection of different takes, which constitute the smallest entities of a film. The transition from one take to another can either be done by a simple cut, which remains unnoticed by the spectator, or by other transition methods, such as dissolves and fades, which are supposed to have certain extra effects.[5] Korte (1999) states further that montage can serve as an independent compositional feature,[6] which will be referred to in the next part of the term paper.

The clips mostly consist of a number of short takes which are not only strung together but result in a coherent outcome. Still, they can consist of numerous aesthetic forms, mixing different genres and eras. Thus, the video clip can be seen as a collage which receives its coherence not from the homogeneity and continuity of a narration but from the heterogeneity and possible inconsistency of the composition, which is supposed to be perceived by the audience, too.[7]

One can draw an interesting parallel between video clips within the music industry and film adaptations of literature: both of them have met with critique concerning their influence on the reception. Films are said to disturb or guide the viewers' reception and video clips have been said to shift the viewers' focus from the music to the visual clip. Since then however, the clip has developed into a proper creative and aesthetic art form.[8]

In order to be able to analyse such a video clip, one has to distinguish between different aspects of the product. At first, there is the visual aspect: (1) the images which the camera catches. However, those do not only include the action which is shown, but also the genre and era (e.g. animation vs. black-and-white film); (2) the technique which is used, i.e. the take's extent, perspective of the camera, the length of the take, the camera and object movement, and the relation of the axes;[09] (3) the conjunction of the takes by simple cuts, hard cuts or other transition methods, as already stated above. The decision as to which method to use is important, since either one can serve a different function, for instance underline contrasts which are supposed to be noticed.[10] The second aspect for the analysis of a video clip is the audible experience, i.e. dialogue or monologue, music, a narrator or voice in the off and other noises.[11] In this case, the function of the clip has to be looked at as well, since there must be a reason that the director of this film has chosen the clip format in favour of another one, or rather in favour of the original play-within-the-play.

3. 'Almereyda's Mousetrap'

Almereyda realised Shakespeare's mousetrap scene, the play within the play, as movie-within-the-movie. He used the postmodern video clip to depict the meta-drama which proves Claudius' guilt. The particularity of Almereyda's video clip is that he only put images together, whereby the clip focuses on faces instead of words or dialogues, which is also a feature of silent movies. Therefore, the brain stimulation or even manipulation is done by the images and their composition.[12] However, there are sounds to be heard when watching the 'Mousetrap'. Perhaps they are not being noticed throughout the entire length of the clip, yet, they serve a function and will be analysed, too.

3.1 Images

The parts which do not belong to the movie-within-the-movie but to the film itself will be excluded from the analysis, as they do not have any influence on the perception of the video clip. However, the credits of the video clip are looked at: the opening credits are the same as the ones of the film itself. The same white letters on a red background are supposed to depict a certain "lack of autonomy"[13] concerning Hamlet and his position in the play.[14] The fact that he is not or does not want to be in control of his own creation shows his introvertive and anxious state of mind. Then, the video clip begins with a 'close-up'[15] of a time-lapsed blossoming rose, which might have been part of a documentary, and in this context is used as a metaphor for the love and innocence which used to exist in Hamlet's life and in the relationship to his mother.[16] The image of the rose dissolves into coloured and black-and-white scenes of an ordinary happy 50s family in America.[17] This transition marks the togetherness of the takes. The little boy in this scene is clearly meant to represent Hamlet in his childhood with his caring parents. The father brings him to bed and watches him. Nonetheless, the family does not only depict Hamlet's ideal world, but also gives clues about Hamlet: as the director of the film-within-the-film, he chose to be represented by a little boy, who seems likely to symbolize his innocence, too, before turning into an avenger in the next scene of the play. The following take shows the terrestrial globe which is spinning around.

These first three sequences demonstrate Hamlet's life as it used to be, or rather how he idealises it, before his father was murdered. Then, the globe fades out into a black screen. This particular transition is chosen here to mark the change of the events and the beginning of a new era, where nothing is as it used to be. The next take shows an animation of the murder scene, first a 'close shot' of a hand holding a flask with poison. Then, a man, obviously depicting Old Hamlet, is sitting on a chair; the murderer appears and poisons the former. A blue drop of poison is dribbled in the man's ear. A hard cut changes to a black-and-white scene, an extract from a silent movie, and one can see a man tumbling and then dying. The following take displays a war scene in which a Roman leader orders to bring away another man and is left alone with a woman that apparently is the latter's wife. After the murder has been committed, the next takes illustrate the consequences: a tumbling animal and a sports team which is grouped in rows of two in a semicircle and suddenly falls apart. Both scenes are first shot from a normal camera height and then change to a high shot or extreme high shot. If they were only shot from a normal camera height the viewer would have the impression that he was part of the action, i.e. the decay of Old Hamlet's legacy. The chosen perspective restricts the spectator to be only that, however, it enables him to see the consequences in their full extent. These metaphorical collapses in both scenes depict the breakdown of Old Hamlet's kingdom, in this case the enterprise, the family and most of all: Hamlet's life as it used to be. For the next transition, Almereyda used an animated downward spiral which seems to serve the same function. Then, another flower is seen to wither.

All these images depict the development that is currently happening in the Denmark Corporation and that is a consequence of Claudius' betrayal and deed; i.e. the loss of innocence. The boy from the 50s family reappears, descending the stairwell, hiding behind a wall and observing.

Next, one can see the scene with the Roman leader again who now pays his attentions to the woman, from a low shot. The method which is used here is the subjective camera: the spectator seems to see the scene through the eyes of the little boy. It is obvious what is alluded at: Hamlet knows about Claudius' guilt and his plan to usurp Old Hamlet's power. The transition from the boy to the Roman is a clever move and a clear message as well as threat to Claudius. The threat is followed by a pornographic scene, depicting Claudius and Gertrude, shown by a close-up on the actors' faces. It is to note here that the actress from the extract has a great resemblance to Gertrude. Here, the function of the close-up is to reflect Gertrude's image to herself, as though she was looking at herself in a mirror.

Afterwards the screen displays the audience of a theatre which is applauding. At first, one could mistake it for Hamlet's request that his audience should applaud him, as his clip has ended. Yet, the fact that another scene is following lets one conclude that the audience displayed in the movie-within-the-movie refers to the aforementioned rather repulsive pornographic scene. On the one hand, it is a sharp critique on his uncle's and especially his mother's behaviour, since Hamlet knows about the murder and he despises his mother for being with his father's murderer, which is only so shortly after the death of her first husband. Moreover, he thinks their relationship is incestuous, for Old Hamlet was Claudius' brother. On the other hand, he uses the combination of the scenes as mockery and scornful congratulation concerning the relationship between the traitors and their credibility as a loving couple. The last scene shows an old man that one can only look over the shoulder to see his mirror image. He holds a crown in his hands and puts it on his head. Then, a close-up shows him smiling fiendishly and satisfied, referring to Claudius who finally usurped the power he wanted. This proximity towards the camera is to be seen as proximity towards the viewer of the film. It constitutes the analogous form to the Elizabethan stage which would have created the closeness by rising into the auditorium, and is used here as a means to reach out to the spectator and receive the highest empathetic reaction possible.[18] The credits at the end of the clip are in black-and-white again and seem to have been taken out of an old horror movie, looking as though the letters were written in blood which is still dripping.

Almereyda only used footage from other films, instead of own material as in Hamlet's other videos. This might be another indicator for the aforementioned 'lack of autonomy' concerning Hamlet. Yet, they could also stand for his indecisiveness and insecurity, i.e. that he is incapable of shouldering responsibility as in avenging is father. The genres which he used here are historical/ war, documentary, animation, family and horror. So, he combined black-and-white with coloured elements and, all in all, used a wide range of different possibilities to compose the mousetrap scene. Still, how can he deliver an overall message with all those different genres? The use of the black-and-white tumbling man and the animated murder scene rather seem to be ironic, although their theme is serious.[19] And why did he do so? If he merely took footage from other films, why has he not restricted it to a single genre? The simple answer is that the different genres evoke certain emotions. Taking the silent movie extract with the tumbling man as an example, the spectator associates it rather with irony or amusement than with sadness or horror.[20] Becoming aware of this contradiction even emphasises Almereyda's desired effect upon the viewer. The ease with which Old Hamlet's death scene is depicted also strengthens the negative feelings one has towards Claudius, as they stand for his unscrupulous actions. The documentary parts with the flowers might have the function to remind the spectator of the fact that life is finite and that death is the final part of it. However, the fact that they are time-lapsed seems to indicate that the happening which is illustrated has not taken its natural course. This suggests that Almereyda intentionally chose to combine different art forms in order to let his audience feel what he wants them to. Thus, he manipulates the viewer who unconsciously understands every bit of information, despite having the impression that the art forms have been chosen arbitrarily in the first place. The complexity which constitutes the ‘Mousetrap’ can be seen and understood as the complexity of emotions and associations which is requested for the intelligibility of the clip.[21]

3.2 Sounds

As already stated, the mousetrap scene does not contain any words or dialogues. Instead, Almereyda has highlighted it with music: Tchaikovsky's Hamlet, Op. 67[22]. Here, it serves as a dramaturgical element in the off. The music combines the entire collage to a single piece.[23] Also, it intensifies the emotions which are developing while watching all the different images. When the opening credits appear, so does the music. It starts slowly and sounds ill-omened. Then, the tone of the music is rather sentimental and melancholic, emphasising the images of the family and probably Hamlet's childhood memories. When the globe fades into black, the volume of the music turns up and, with the appearance of the poison flask, the melody introduces the dramatic change of events. The series of images that follows is accompanied by tunes symbolising the tragic consequences of the murder, i.e. the breakdown of a stable and happy family and the entire Denmark Corporation. These tunes and images of consequences culminate in the applause of the audience that is seen in the clip. The music is suddenly paused for a moment and commences again with the scene showing the greedy old man taking the crown. Again, a dark tone dominates, combined with drumbeats. Finally, a typical melody indicating the end of a film brings the clip to a termination.

The overall silence which otherwise predominates the video clip can also be seen as an intertextual reference to Depeche Mode's original clip of 'Enjoy the Silence'. The group's clip resembles Shakespeare's play, as it follows a young prince who wonders around with a chair, symbolising a throne on which he occasionally sits. Moreover, the theme of the song is the perfect verbalisation for Hamlet's and Ophelia's relationship. They fell in love sharing a great interest in images and rejecting the ordinary way of communication. That is why they do not use words when communicating with each other and therefore literally realise the song. Furthermore, Hamlet does not comment any image which can be seen in his video clip. He stays calm instead of enforcing the thoughts of Claudius and Gertrude.[24]

Moreover, the introduction of words or dialogues within the clip would have shifted the focus again, or rather would have split the attention of the audience. The consequence would probably be the loss of intelligibility, for the audience could not concentrate on the images as much anymore.

4. Function

The question is now why Almereyda wanted to depict the Mousetrap as a video clip. The change from the theatre to a cinema is, needless to say, logical. The entire play has been transported into the late 20th century where the cinema has become the common place for amusement. However, the decision to use a video clip instead of a short film, for instance, or footage from his own filming is more difficult and needs to be further examined.

The director has constantly used meta-films within his Hamlet. Hamlet's soliloquies are filmed by the leading actor himself; the spectator can watch him behind his editing desk where he is looking at footage, and much more. Hence, those meta-films have to serve a particular purpose. It is obvious that he thereby wanted to highlight those scenes.[25] Almereyda chose the format of the video clip to picturise the mousetrap scene for certain other reasons. First of all, it becomes even clearer that he therewith criticises Claudius and Gertrude, than with the theatre group, which fulfilled the role in the actual written standard. Furthermore, the spectator of the entire movie has a more authentic insight into Hamlet's thoughts.

Due to the high range of different genres and eras of film, it is argued that Almereyda only chronicled the history of the image in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the genres he composed the 'Mousetrap' of serve an entire different function than the one mentioned above. In order to understand that function, one has to see the larger image, i.e. the entire movie.[26] Almereyda made Hamlet an independent filmmaker in a consumer culture. He transferred Shakespeare's play into the modern world. Hamlet, who seemingly has not found his place in this world yet, uses his camera not only as a medium of self-reflection but also as a mirror of today's society.

Therewith, the director shows the actuality of Shakespeare's text, not only by setting the play in modern day New York, but also by transporting its themes: alienation, paranoia, communication, and other issues are predominant not only in Shakespeare's Hamlet, but also in today's culture and are therefore dealt with in the film.[27] Still, researchers, such as Ko(2005), also state that Almereyda's film can be seen as a critique towards the development of intertextual media. The clip does indeed chronicle the development of the film industry within the 20th century. He claims that, while technology made it possible to create images, it did not succeed in providing them with true meaning, i.e. the images are only reproduced or imitated.

Condemning the film industry within the 20th century and still making the protagonist of his film a 90s independent filmmaker, Almereyda again shows that Hamlet is living in his own world, apart from his surroundings and marked by indifference. Further, the director plays with this contradiction in terms of using the entire film to criticise the film industry and the film-within-the-film to praise independent filmmakers and small studios struggling against the big companies. It has been said that Hamlet, who stands for the 'indies', was using the meaningless images and has put them together in a meaningful way.[28] As in the 'mousetrap' itself, this inconsistency again functions as a means to highlight the actual intention:

signal[ing] the demise of 'cinema,' dramatizing the effects of a century of image reproduction and the failure of the twentieth-century dream of technology to bring us any kind of true meaning or fulfilment.[29]

However, the image of an independent filmmaker gives Hamlet the opportunity to create himself and his surroundings the way he wants them to be in his "reel world".[30] By that, he feels the power he obviously seeks to have and to be able to manipulate his reel world to become what the real world is lacking.[31]He can also relive his paradise lost, the happy family life that he only learned to appreciate when it was gone.[32] With the help of the video clip, he can show how things used to be and he is able to prove, at least to himself, that Claudius murdered his father, which at first determines him to act and revenge the latter. Another parallel to the play is that, there, the only people that Hamlet trusts and respects are the players from the theatre group.[33] Here, he seems to only trust his reel world, i.e. the video clip that he himself edited. Hence, his narcissistic attitude becomes quite obvious. He is alienated, does not know where he belongs and therefore flees into his reel world and ignores reality by editing his own one, which does not imply that the scenes featured in the clip have not really happened.

The paradigm shift from the film to the film-within-the-film, i.e. the cut within the normal progression of the film, opens a great insight into the main characters. The viewer can see the king and queen entirely from Hamlet's perspective. Thus, the technique which is used for the clip can be said to be the aforementioned subjective camera, too. Yet, not only can the viewer of Almereyda's film have a look at Hamlet's reality, i.e. his reel world, but the play's characters that watch the clip do so as well. One can say now that the paradigm shift includes a shift from the subjective camera in the film-within-the-film to the subjective camera in the film. For Claudius and Gertrude, who obviously recognise themselves in the clip, watching the 'Mousetrap' is not only like seeing themselves through Hamlet's eyes, but also like looking into a mirror. Gertrude seems deeply disgusted by the images she sees, however, it is not clear whether she realises that it is a mirror image she sees instead of only Hamlet's imagination. Claudius, on the other hand, is aware of that fact, yet, at first does not fear his conscience, but only that everybody could find out about his deed and that he therewith could lose his power and would have to face being charged with murder. Not able to cope with that fear, he leaves the cinema.

The decision to use footage from other films must have arisen from the fact that, on the one hand, Almereyda or Hamlet respectively, could play with the aforementioned contradictions of the genres' associations, and on the other hand, the clip’s message is implicit, at least for the audience apart from Claudius and to some extent Gertrude. Almereyda's message, i.e. the criticism on the film industry, is also implicit. Moreover, Hamlet could not have used own footage, since he does not have it. The only thing he could have done instead of editing a video clip would have been to hire actors and film the scenes the way he imagined the murder, for instance, which would be more conform to the actual play. However, that would probably not have been as intelligible, as the combination of words and images is said to weaken both the words and the images. More importantly it is the video clip, which is the latest development in the visual arts, so why should Almereyda, who intended to create a truly postmodern adaptation of the play, abandon the clip?

Furthermore, the use of the clip refers to the reception of film adaptations in general, as mentioned before, for they used to have the same reputation. In addition to that, the reference to the clip as 'MTV-style' might be a further explanation: MTV addresses the younger generation, Shakespeare, as a classical piece of literature, does rather not. Therefore, Almereyda could even prove the actuality of the play's themes to the MTV-generation in directly addressing them by the use of the clip. As other film adaptations, Almereyda's Hamlet has come under criticism. Mostly, the facts that the words are not being focused anymore and instead, images disturb the reception of the viewer and that the director imposes his version of the text upon his spectator are responsible for criticism. The problem is that the combination of words and images results in a stimulation satiation and, therefore, the viewer of the film is not able to absorb all the details and subtleties that are hidden in Shakespeare's works, for instance. Yet, with the use of the video clip which eventually enabled him to create a scene completely intelligible to his audience, due to its peculiarity to work without words, Almereyda proved the prejudices about film adaptations to be wrong and unnecessary.

5. Conclusion

After the analysis of the video clip, it has become clear that, although one might doubt it, Almereyda's film adaptation does not have to suffer anything, such as the loss of credibility, towards the written standard. The postmodern treatment of the written standard shows an interesting perspective on Shakespearean material within the late 20th century. Concerning the use of the film-within-the-film, Almereyda did not only succeed in transporting the Mousetrap scene on the screen, but he also managed to preserve its meaning. The problem with film adaptations is that they weaken the meaning of the words, which were predominant in Shakespeare's time, by the use of images, which belong in the postmodern world. Here, Almereyda merely exchanged the words by the images, which he then emphasised by using genres which sometimes contradict the meaning of the actual story. Hence, the aforementioned thesis that narrative also belongs to the process of telling that makes a story intelligible proves to be right. Furthermore, keeping the aforementioned parallel between the acceptance of film adaptations and the early one of video clips in the back of one's mind, the fact that Almereyda chose to feature the clip format in his adaptation could also be understood as an ironic approach towards film adaptations per se. Almereyda seems to continuously play with the role and reputation of modern day media and therewith clarifies it to his audience. It might further be an appeal for people to become aware of the state of media, as the current consumer culture is entirely dependent on mass media. What might be most interesting about the film is that Almereyda constantly used techniques, such as the contradictions or the subjective camera, within his 'Mousetrap' which also reappear in the relation of the video clip and the film itself. He even mirrored the play's society in the clip and today’s society in the film. Thus, the film does not fulfil an either-or function, i.e. either proving the actuality of the subjects and creating a convincing adaptation or transporting an implicit message, as in criticising the film industry. It can be seen as fulfilling both functions.

[1] Tanja Weiss, Shakespeare on the Screen: Kenneth Branagh's Adaptations of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet (Frankfurt am Main, 1999) 126.

[2] Alessandro Abbate, "The Text within the Text, the Screen within the Screen: Multi-Layered Representations in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet." In: Gerhard Fischer and Bernhard Greiner (eds.), The Play within the Play – The Performance of Meta-Theatre and Self-Reflection. (Amsterdam and New York, 2007), 388.

[3] Jens Thiele, "'Kiss kiss bang bang': William Shakespeare's Romeo und Julia(Luhrmann, USA 1996)." In: Korte, Einführung, 215.

[4] Cf. ibid.

[5] Cf. Werner Faulstich, Grundkurs Filmanalyse (München, 2002), 113, 122 f. The exact techniques and their effects will be looked at in detail within the analysis of Almereyda's video clip (chapter 3).

[6] Cf. Helmut Korte, Einführung in die Systematische Filmanalyse – Ein Arbeitsbuch (Berlin, 1999), 28.

[7] Cf. Thiele, 208 f.

[8]Cf. "Other early criticism; Rise of the directors" (10.04.09). In: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, URL: (11.04.09).

[9] Cf. Faulstich, 113.

[10] Cf. Korte, 28.

[11] Cf. Faulstich, 131 ff.

[12] Abbate refers to the movie-within-the-movie as "“screen within the screen" (2007:377), which is equally appropriate.

[13] Abbate, 380.

[14] Cf. ibid.

[15] Cf. Faulstich, 115. Note that the expressions used by Faulstich will not be explained in this term paper. For further readings, see: Faulstich, 115ff.

[16] Cf. Yu Jin Ko, "The Mousetrap" and Remembrance in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet," Shakespeare Bulletin: a Journal of Performance, Criticism and Scholarship 23.4 (2005), 25.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cf. Thiele, 214.

[19] Cf. Ko, 25.

[20] Cf. ibid.

[21] Cf. Thiele, 209 ff.

[22]"Trivia for Hamlet" (2000). In: The Internet Movie Database, URL: (03.04.09). See also Abbate (2007), 379.

[23] Cf. Faulstich, 137.

[24] Cf. Abbate, 380 ff.

[25] Cf. Abbate, 388.

[26] Cf. Ko, 20 f.

[27] Cf. Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare at the Cineplex: the Kenneth Branagh Era (Athens: Ohio, 2003), 191 f.

[28] Cf. Ko, 20 f.

[29] Ko, 21.

[30] Ko, 23. The term reel world functions here as a homophone and is to be contrasted to real world.

[31] Cf. Abbate, 389.

[32] Cf. Ko, 25.

[33] Cf. Abbate, 377 f.