Wednesday, June 4, 2008

McShakespeare: Something’s Rotten in the State of Pennsylvania

Billy Morrissette’s Scotland, PA transforms Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, into a dark comedy set in the 1970s yet maintains many important Shakespearean themes at the film’s core. Unlike film versions which convert social structures from the original Shakespearian settings into more recent times, Scotland, PA is set in a working class town in Pennsylvania. As the film makes clear, greed and lust can transcend any class. Duncan, the blue-collar king of the town, owning a lucrative donut shop humorously titled Duncan’s Donuts which has become the towns most popular diner. Underappreciated Joe Macbeth, who goes by Mac alongside his wife Pat, work for the donut mogul in a dead end job that pays little and gets no respect. Mac remains behind the grill, making suggestions to Duncan like serving little chunks of chicken with dipping sauces that go unheard. However after informing his boss that the manager has been stealing from the establishment and breaking up a fight between two groups of customers, Mac becomes a hero. Three hippies then tell Mac he is unhappy and can do better for his wife which sets into motion the acts that turn Scotland upside down. Mac and Pat become driven by greed and decide to seize the restaurant and sit atop the burger thrown. Their plan, however, does not go down as smoothly as a Mcshake and their lust for power and guilt bring about their fall from the top.

One of the themes from Macbeth which resonates the strongest in the film is Lady Macbeth and Pat’s ambition for success which will stop at nothing until their husbands reign supreme without any potential threats to take away their power. In the play, Lady Macbeth is aware of her husband’s desire for power but knows he is not prompted to commit heinous acts. Unlike her husband, Lady Macbeth pursues her aspirations with no regard for the consequences but is less able to deal with the effects of their evil deeds. Pat sees her husband in a similar way: she views him as a man who longs for power but is “not man enough” to obtain them, yet, to her, he is someone she can manipulate to get the things that she wants. She advises Mac to be strong but she is incapable of handling her husband’s growing body count. From the beginning of the film Pat criticizes Mac for not showing more ambition and not standing up for her. Being unhappy with the way life is going, she is bored with Mac and their low paying jobs. When Duncan shows them the blueprint for the world’s first drive through, Pat seizes her opportunity to gain wealth and power. Upon leaving Duncan’s, she decides Mac must murder Duncan in order to get ahead, telling her husband, “We have to aim higher… I am the fucking assistant manager’s wife… We aren’t bad people, just underachievers making up for lost time. Don’t you think you deserve it?” In this scene, Pat skillfully exhibits her disdain for their current lifestyle saying they need better goals, while belittling Mac and justifying to him the act she wants him to commit. She believes that they are simply coming to their senses, taking what she believes to be up for grabs, and begins devising a plan. Suggesting they make it look like a robbery and pin it on a homeless man, she gets Mac to agree to her plan since neither believes they will get caught. Ultimately, however, the burden becomes too great and she loses her once guilt-free mind.

Before she commits suicide the roles in the Macbeths relationship are reversed with Mac taking the initiative while Pat is scared of taking further action. Mac tries to console her, saying “everything will be ok” because the hippies have told him that he has nothing to fear. Now Mac will stop at nothing to keep his power while Pat just wants the bloodshed to stop. She sees their reign coming to an end. The murder and mayhem no longer seem worth the wealth and status that is quickly coming to an end. Mac, on the other hand, feels immortal, he believes nothing can harm him and he can easily extinguish all the threats to power that come his way. This is only a false sense of security, however, because there is nothing Mac can do to “get to the source of the problem”. In other words, he cannot undue what has been done, but Mac interprets the warning differently believing the source to be Macduff. In a comical moment, the film plays on the course of action Macbeth takes in the play when a male hippy suggests he should kill Macduff’s entire family. Responding to this thought, the other male hippy states “yeah, that would have only worked like a thousand years ago”. This seems to be in response to when the play is set, which illustrates the time gap between the film and the play. Killing a detective’s family does not seem to be a good idea to the modern viewer and gets a laugh at how inappropriate it seems in this context.

In an attempt to make the film more humorous and appeal to the indie genre, the three witches who inspire Macbeth to murder Duncan and to order the death of Banquo are replaced by three hippies. Like the witches, the hippies place in the cosmos remains a mystery. Further more, both hippies and witches have been marginalized, never totally accepted into their respected societies. Instead of the storms that accompany the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, symbolizing the lack of order that rules the day, the carnival atmosphere in Scotland, PA does a good job illustrating the same concept. When Mac comes across this trio, he is usually drunk giving the viewer the impression that he could be imagining the whole scenario. Unlike the play, only Mac sees these figures; Banquo does not accompany him in the telling of his fortune, accomplished with the help of a magic eight ball. The Carnivalesque setting, where the three hippies speak to Mac is speckled with star like lights and a merry-go-round spins in the center of a room. In this framework, from the first time one sees Mac speaking with the counter culture prophets, it is apparent that they do not exist in the world. These characters are not bound by the rules of science or social norms; instead they appear and disappear when they please, make themselves visible only to Mac, predict the future, and speak in riddles. In these ways the hippies parallel the witches in Macbeth who come as quickly as they go and take delight in using their premonitions to destroy the lives of others.

Pat’s hand is not covered in the blood of Duncan, but giving the film a modern twist, her hand catches a grease splatter when Duncan goes head first into the fryer, giving her a visible burn, in arguably Morrissette’s most ingenious move. Rather than washing the brand, as Lady Macbeth tries to clean her blood-soaked hands in the play, Pat constantly applies burn ointment to her sore even after it heals. Three scenes in the film show Pat’s progression from slight paranoia to full-blown madness as her conscience proves overwhelming. The first indication that Pat is losing it comes when Pat runs out of skin cream and is asked who the tubes are for by the pharmacist and his assistant. Pat tells them they are sweet for pretending not to notice the mark she describes as “disgusting”. Having seen a quarter sized burn just after the murder of Duncan, the audience begins to question the mental state of Pat. Obviously fixated on the burn, thinking it draws attention to her, Pat is being consumed by her paranoia. Later, when she again attempts to buy more salve, insisting on “the bigger tubes,” the audience sees her hand without any bandages for the first time since Duncan’s funeral and there is not even a scar where her hand had once been scalded. Losing the strength and confidence she once possessed, Pat now finds herself terrified of the future and gives up on the idea of getting away scot-free, so to speak. She eventually becomes so overtaken by guilt and the painful reminder only she can see on her hand, she decides to remove the sore by chopping her own hand off. By letting her extreme paranoia dictate her actions, Pat goes to drastic measures in order to alleviate her conscience, an act that kills her similar to Lady Macbeth’s suicide due to her guilt.

Mac, like Shakespeare’s character Macbeth, sees many threats to his status, including his best friend and confidant, Banquo; the son of Duncan, Malcolm; and the homicide detective on the case, Macduff. All three of these characters develop growing suspicions about Macbeth’s quick rise to power. Initially, Macduff believes Malcolm to be behind his father’s death because he has fled the state and had never wanted to work in his father’s restaurant. This is similar to the people suspecting Malcolm in the play when he traveled to England and when he led on that he was not interested in being king saying he would be a worse ruler than Macbeth. Banquo, however, suspects Mac and Pat from almost the beginning, questioning the two about things he felt were “strange.” Mac recognizes Banquo as a potential hazard, indicating to the audience that Banquo will soon meet his demise since the couple cannot afford to leave any loose ends.

Another scene that corresponds to the Shakespeare tragedy comes from this problem after Mac kills Banquo. After the murder, Mac has a press conference to promote his restaurant which is doing very well. At this meeting, Mac begins to deliver a speech to the cameras and awaiting crowd, which includes Macduff and Malcolm among others. In this scene Mac sees Banquo’s ghost and begins speaking to it as Macbeth spoke to the spirit at a banquet. Everyone in the town now sees that Mac is beginning to go mad so Pat, quick to react, makes excuses for her husband’s odd behavior. Illustrating the effects of Mac’s guilty conscious weighing down on him, the scene shows that things are only getting worse for the couple as the death toll escalates. It soon becomes apparent that to stay in power the couple can never cease their murderous ways. This point is driven home at the end of the film when Mac is trying to kill Macduff and the threat forces Mac to realize the truth of his situation: there will always be challenges to his power and he will never be able to rest easy. After Macduff, Mac will have to kill Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donald, then there will be more dangers to his prosperity and the murdering will never stop until Mac is dead, which comes at the hands of Macduff.

At no point in the film does Morrissette play with Shakespeare’s dialogue. The film could have been much stronger if he had, for example, used phrases like “there is something rotten in the state of Pennsylvania.” While this is a corny attempt, there are times when the movie begs for some of the original Shakespearian dialogue with a modern twist. In an interview Morrissette confesses that the film appeals more to those that have worked in a fast-food drive thru than a Shakespearian looking for the drama of the Globe Theater. In that way Scotland, PA and Macbeth work analogously to other films that are based on books from a different time period like Ten Things I Hate About You being based on The Taming of the Shrew, Oh Brother Where Art Thou based on the Odyssey, and Clueless finding its basis in Jane Austen’s Emma. The dialogue and setting are different but the plot remains more or less the same. For Scotland, PA, the foundation still remains murder, unchecked desire, and guilt that are so fundamental to Macbeth, but the modern twists and language are simply added for comedy.

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