A still from Margaux Williamson’s Teenager Hamlet.
To be truthful, or not to be truthful. To be romantic, or not to be romantic. To Toronto painter-turned-director Margaux Williamson, this is the real question. About art, that is. But unfortunately, the answer is not a clear-cut A or B. It’s more like: A, B, or the guy who would rather drop his pants and pee in the middle of the floor in response.
Such is just one of the answers Williamson receives in her first foray into feature-length filmmaking, Teenager Hamlet. Like many artists, Williamson found herself constantly trying to reconcile her desire to change society for the better through her work with a career that rarely has tangible results to that effect. So in 2006, also like many artists, she made an art project about it.
But unlike many artists, Williamson turned her camera towards her friends—painters, actors, writers, and musicians—rendering them subjects instead of creators. Through interviews that probe everything from the purpose behind their art to whether or not they own a pool, these friends become the performers in what Williamson calls her “play,” with her Queen West neighbourhood as the “backdrop” and the reality TV genre as her “stage.” With no script and only four thousand dollars left over from her last show to fund the movie, Williamson didn’t have high expectations for the end result. Though a version of the film was shown as part of TIFF’s Future Projections program in 2008, Williamson didn’t even tell her subjects she was intending to make a feature-length film in case it all failed in the end. Basically, she just hoped there would be an interesting story to be found in the middle of her circle of artsy-fartsy types, and that it would help her realize how to use her art to change the world.
Margaux Williamson and friend and author Sheila Heti laying back…relaxing…discussing the trials and tribulations of Hamlet…and whatnot.
Spoiler alert: Williamson doesn’t figure out how to change the world. Are we surprised? No. Are we intrigued? Yeah, kind of. Because what she does find is that basically her friends—and we extrapolate from this to include all artists—can be split into two groups: the Hamlets, who are consumed by social injustice and their own impotence, and the Ophelias, who obsess over romanticism and the world’s beauty (which, we see in a rare old interview with Phil Donahue, includes Ayn Rand).
The comparisons between the plight of the Prince of Denmark at the turn of the seventeenth century and a group of young Toronto artists in the new millennium aren’t obvious at first, but Williamson does an interesting job reinterpreting the classic to make her point. In the end, it’s clear the Hamlets and Ophelias are trying to achieve a truth (justice and beauty) that is just as intangible as a ghost making deadly requests and accusations of murder. And, in a manner that is as unreliable as when Hamlet decides he can judge his uncle’s guilt through his reaction to a play. As Williamson suggests, they just may not know any other way.
The sad thing is that it took us a few watches to get to this realization. While visually intriguing, Williamson certainly isn’t shy about taking artistic license with Teenager Hamlet. The drawn-out shots of interviewers and interviewees staring at the screen, sporadic jump cuts, intentionally (it must be) terrible lighting, and a mimed lakeside performance of Hamlet by pasty white “aktors” in bathing suits in the rain, are all incredibly distracting and alienating to sit through. Not to mention the overbearing self-indulgence of some of the interview subjects, and even one of the interviewers (artist Sholem Krishtalka) admits he is “verbose, sometimes neurotically so.” If you’re at all averse to the abstract, Teenager Hamlet may not be your idea of the perfect Friday night rental.
But if it is, you’re in luck! Today, Teenager Hamlet is being released on DVD, alongside Sheila Heti‘s new book How Should a Person Be? and Tomboyfriend‘s new album Don’t Go to School (Heti and Ryan Kamstra of Tomboyfriend both appear in the film). A release party is set for tonight at Stones Place at 8 p.m. The Royal is also hosting two screenings of Teenager Hamlet, this Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at noon.
Williamson wanted to see herself as a “man of action,” as Hamlet is when he finally bites the bullet and kills Polonius. But she admits she never made it with this film, she doesn’t know how to enact change, and neither does anyone else. Comparing herself to Hamlet’s trajectory, she’s still “at the part of making a play.” But, instead of taking cues from Hamlet and Ophelia, maybe Williamson should have heeded the wise words of Queen Gertrude when she said to her verbose villain of a husband, “More matter with less art.”