Interview with Edward Folger
Edward Folger is an independent filmmaker, who has worked as a writer, editor, still photographer and director in his own films, as well as apprenticing in feature films with directors, Alain Resnais and John Cassavettes. The Soul of Wit is an eleven minute film, which adapts characters, speech and themes from Hamlet. It was written, directed, edited and co-produced by Folger, and filmed at St. Paul University in Ottawa with a local cast and crew. The film focuses on the fractured world of schizophrenics inside a psychiatric institution, with a Shakespearean twist in characters and language. The Soul of Wit premiered at Saw Video on January 27th, 2007, and was also screened at the National Archives on May 30th, 2007.
In this interview, conducted by CASP Researcher Danielle Van Wagner in May 2007, Folger discusses the background and evolution of the work, as well as the inspiration he drew from William Shakespeare, experimental film maker Willard Maas, and Hugh Kenner’s Travesty software. Additionally, Folger reflects on the characterization of the central figures, themes of madness and adaptation and his opinions on the Canadian Shakespearian tradition.
Why did you decide to choose Polonius’ ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ speech as a focus in your script Polonius speaks eight versions of it. What is the significance of the speech, and how does it tie into the main themes of your film?
This idea actually evolved over several decades. Originally the individual scenes were part of a feature film script entitled Soul Catcher which I wrote in the early 1970s and which investigated schizophrenic characters. This script had nothing to do with Shakespeare, although it did include a theatre company performing bits of the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling by Thomas Middleton. The scenes depicting a mental hospital that evolved into The Soul of Wit stuck with me over the years – I think because they stemmed from my experiences with friends and relatives incarcerated in such institutions.
In the mid 1980s, I ran across the work of Professor Hugh Kenner on Travesty, a sort of software literary-style-generator, which seemed to me to produce texts that had the same tone as the logical sounding not-quite-nonsense spoken by some mental patients. Naturally one’s first instinct when testing something like Travesty is to feed a well known style of text into it, so Shakespeare it was. I thought then that the scenes from Soul Catcher could be put together to convey the idea that what seems crazy may very well have a hidden logic, by using travesty texts which evolve to reveal that they are well known quotations from Shakespeare. Hamlet suggested itself since Polonius telling the King and Queen that “your son is mad” fit nicely with the idea of a hebephrenic patient acting out his delusion that he is a doctor. The character of Hamlet himself was also a nice match to the paranoid phone-smashing patient I had met at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital years before.
By this time the millennium had turned and I found myself in Ottawa where my fortunate association with SAW Video finally allowed me to produce the short video The Soul of Wit. As I moved forward with the actors rehearsals and shooting, more and more of the piece seemed to me to relate to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the father’s ghost as a paranoid voice in Hamlet’s head, Ophelia’s helpless, almost catatonic condition, etc. So – in the end – I subtitled the piece Hamlet: remix .
The theme of madness is one present in many Shakespearean plays. Why did you make the decision to adapt Hamlet? And how much did you take from the original play? What is of your own invention?
As I mentioned above, I did not set out to adapt Hamlet, but was drawn to it from the particular instances of real “madness” I had started from. I wound up using more of the straight Shakespearian text and less of the generated nonsense than I had originally intended, when I discovered how much of my asylum action meshed so well with the original play.
It has been said that adaptation is a way of talking across cultures and across time--a way of relating to other authors and contexts intertextually--would you agree with this sense of adaptation in relation to your own work?
Defining things is dangerous ground to tread and, as I said, I never set out specifically to do adaptation. I would say that the whole question of art building upon previous art is interesting and volumes are currently being written about quoting, sampling, remixing, mash-ups, cut-ups, new perspectives on copyright, etc. and this may be part of that larger question. I think that any work that evokes the poetry of Shakespeare’s language is valuable and if it is labeled “Shakespearian” and thus leads future generations back to the inspiring texts, that is valuable as well.
What sort of reception have you received on the film? How have audiences reacted to the Shakespearean angle?
It hasn’t been screened very much yet, but I’ve had mixed reactions. Some love it; some say it relies too much on a knowledge of Shakespeare; some find it gripping without reference to the psychiatric and/or literary subtexts (that last is my favorite reaction).
Could you reflect on your own cultural background in relation to your writing and in relation to being "Canadian"?
Well, I’m a Canadian by political choice, having spent most of my early life in New York City, and the great majority of my Canadian experience has been with the Inuit of the Eastern Arctic, so I’m not sure how to answer that. I was educated in the New York City public school system (when it was still functional) – we read Shakespeare in High School; then I went through the traditional English Department at Columbia University; and of course I never missed a performance of Joseph Papp’s outstanding annual “Shakespeare in the Park” festival; so I’m sure all of that is in the air every time I sit down to write something.
Can you reflect more on your experiences with the Inuit and how this has influenced you creatively and spiritually?
I first went to the arctic in sort of an anthropological mode, to make my film “Nanook Taxi” in 1975. To my surprise, I found my spiritual home there with the Inuit. I immigrated to Canada from Ronald Reagan’s USA and returned north to work on the early stages of native language TV production and the creation of the Nunavut Territory. The Inuit are still close to their roots in an oral storytelling tradition; they are natural performers and have a playful approach to the use of language that continues to delight me. Creating Inuktitut drama for television in those days was incredible. We improvised and wrote storylines for whoever showed up as actors and we got direct uncensored feedback from the community – very Elizabethan. I think joining up with the Inuit has led me back to the need for simplicity and humour in my work. Whatever serious purpose or message there is to anything I do now, it doesn’t really satisfy me unless it’s good for a few laughs. That’s how the Inuit have always dealt with their life at the edge of survival.
Can you comment on what type of mental illness your characters have, and whether it is connected with the actions of the original Shakespeare characters?
Here are some notes I prepared for my actors. I think the descriptions of the various types of schizophrenic symptoms apply quite well to Shakespeare’s characters:
Dr. Polon(ius) = Hebephrenic - The mood is shallow and inappropriate and often accompanied by giggling or self satisfied, self-absorbed smiling, or by a lofty manner,
grimaces, mannerisms, pranks, hypochondriacal complaints, and reiterated phrases. Thought is disorganized and speech rambling and incoherent. There is a tendency to remain solitary, and behaviour seems empty of purpose and feeling.
Hamlet = Paranoid - delusions of persecution, reference, exalted birth, special mission, bodily change, or jealousy; hallucinatory voices that threaten the patient or give
commands, or auditory hallucinations without verbal form, such as whistling, humming, or laughing; hallucinations of smell or taste, or of sexual or other bodily sensations; visual hallucinations may occur but are rarely predominant.
Ophelia = Catatonic - Prominent psychomotor disturbances are essential and dominant features and may alternate between extremes such as hyperkinesis and stupor, or automatic obedience and negativism. Constrained attitudes and postures may be maintained for long periods. Episodes of violent excitement may be a striking feature of the condition.
The schizophrenic disorders are characterized in general by fundamental distortions of thinking and perception, and by inappropriate or blunted affect. Clear consciousness and
intellectual capacity are usually maintained. The disturbance involves the most basic functions that give the normal person a feeling of individuality, uniqueness, and self-direction.
To what extent is theatrical/literary/film culture in Canada (in your reading of it) a function of Shakespearean theatre?
At one point, I subtitled The Soul of Wit, On the Correlation between Modalities of Schizophrenia and the Techniques of Cinematograph Performance. This was partly a joke on myself for getting too academic and analytical, but also a comment on acting in Canada. Perhaps I was trying to say that even if you are rooted in Shakespearian tradition, you may play it in a catatonic mode and emote only with facial twitches and eye movements – the camera sees all.
Between Willard Maas and William Shakespeare who had a bigger influence in the creation of the film? Can you reflect on how they inspired you?
Willard Maas was a pioneer experimental filmmaker who with his wife, Marie Mencken, created the seminal work The Geography of the Body in 1946. Willard and Marie were later involved in making films at Andy Warhol’s Factory and they are said to be the models for the older academic couple in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. When I met Willard in a psychiatric ward in New York, he offered me a tray of fruit with the line I used in the video: “Have some fruit, it’s poison!” So that was the original inspiration for the whole thing. The magnificent poetry of Shakespeare, on the other hand, is the inspiration for any subtlety there may be in the piece.
You used primarily a local improv group as your cast, and a youth training program as your crew. How did they integrate into your idea? How did their work or performances add to your production?
It was a wonderful collaboration. I chose the Black Sheep Theatre group after seeing them perform a piece using nonsense language at the Ottawa Theatre Challenge and they gamely bent to the task of putting Hamlet through the Travesty mill. My crew members were mostly new emigrants to Canada who had no idea who Shakespeare was, yet by the time we were done, they were quoting lines from Hamlet with the best. Many of the crew clamored for bit parts and the actors hung around to help with the equipment when they were not on camera. Everyone made constructive suggestions: the actors who knew Shakespeare contributed there, but the crew members were very helpful when it came to mental patients, they all seem to know something about that.
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