The Lives of Hamilton Fish
New York premiere, May 30, 2014
In 1928, a serial killer named Hamilton “Albert” Fish took a little girl named Grace Budd into the woods of upstate New York and she was never heard from again — and this sick destroyer’s own anguish was perhaps never heard the first time. Today few people would recognize his name upon hearing it — but multi-artform practitioner Rachel Mason was there a century later to note the strange counterpoint between that name and that of statesman Hamilton Fish II, whose obituary appeared on the same front page of a New York newspaper as the notice of the other Hamilton’s execution in 1936. Mason’s mission, over eight years, became to unearth their stories, and those of the people around them; to pay attention to what was untold and spin a story or her own from the pulp of ancient chronicles and the forgotten girl who fell in the woods.
The result is The Lives of Hamilton Fish, a film that stages the surreal reflections on these faded strands of history as a popular opera, playing out onscreen with mouthed vocals while Mason takes the bardic role of singer and musician live onstage in front of it. Actors portray the two Fishes, the statesman’s wife (a suicide), the little girl and her mother, a prisoner, and a psychic, while Mason plays a reporter obsessed with the coincidence — yet another bardic figure.
All actors seem to sing in her voice, which is fitting; the historic figures’ own sounds have been silenced, and the reporter is determining their narrative, though trying to breath some life back in.
Events and characters intersect in ways that elaborate on reality, but also illuminate it. Elegant, eerie use is made of the two main characters’ shared last name; of the killer, it is sung, “The wild fish is out of water and he’s roaming around your town/The wild fish is out of water and he leaves no mark on the ground” — an image of accursed evolution, of edenic expulsion, and a profaned early-Christian symbol, evoking not the savior the sign represented but the kind of predator the world was left to (as echoed by Fish the statesman, who abandons his position of authority in Washington, DC, retreats to his New York mansion and sings of his disillusionment about a universe of order or fairness after his wife’s death).
The killer Fish is sung about as a “werewolf” (one of his real-life media nicknames) and stands like some time-travelling Jack the Ripper figure at a nexus of folkloric horrors; when he eventually is put to death, it is in the grip of electric-chair lightning like Frankenstein’s monster; upon his capture we see him spun up in linen like a mummy, and of course his recurrent theme-song conjures the fairytale Big Bad Wolf — an unhappy story told to him about himself and lived out while others do not. His own abused childhood is hinted at, and in one subtly horrifying scene he staggers slowly between lifeless dolls set up in a quaint old bedroom, effigies of his prey. In this role, Bill Weeden is an unforgettable tragic monstrosity, dead-eyed yet conveying volcanoes of turmoil even further back than that, darting and furtive like a calculating cornered beast when confronted, locked slackly on some horrors he’s lurching away from experiencing and speeding toward causing, railing at the cosmos or stonily certain.
As the favored Fish, Theodore Bouloukos is earnest and supremely focused in his portrayal of numb trauma and existential drift. We assume this turn-of-the-last century assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary to be a not particularly reflective man, but his misfortune stirs depths in him which I would like to have seen Bouloukos convey with a bit more tragic weight. This Fish’s storyline is fascinating — self-interment in his mansion, a weird chorus-girl voudon ritual that he invites a spirit medium to perform in his house to contact his wife’s soul — but it is carried more by Mason’s libretto whereas Weeden holds his up equally. Still, it is the curse of decent men that the predators will be more vividly remembered, and Bouloukos’ sepulchral calm is well-taken, yet another counterpoint between him and the charismatic demon who shares his name and seems to prowl beyond death while the good Hamilton turns out his lights ahead of it.
Mason herself, as a character, is an everyperson imbued with great nervous vigilance and downplayed dread. As a performer, she shows remarkable expressive discipline yet conceptual adventurousness, a pillar of storytelling steadiness who can incarnate every furious, despairing, ethereal and doggedly cerebral character. Her musical palette both on and offscreen is impressive, from propulsive rock songs to unsettling ghostly ballads, from howling flute to chilling gusts of metal guitar to a great reality-bending use of auto-tune as instrument.
Her choice of settings is transporting, a collection of interiors and elysian grounds that convey the luxurious mausoleums of the Hudson Valley (though some of them are actually situated as far from that, both geographically and culturally, as Jersey City). As well as the dungeon walls of Sing Sing Prison and the primal woods of the New York wilderness.
Sarah Baskin is heartbreaking and invincible as Emily Mann, good Hamilton’s lost wife; dressed like some gilded-age goddess effigy she dances and soliloquizes in a classic pavilion that’s like some alabaster phallic cage. At one point her ghost encounters a florally-dressed version of Grace Budd, a lovely primavera fantasia, and the true memorial of this work is to these two tragic sisters, the woman who took herself out of the world for reasons we may never know, and the one who was taken before she’d ever have a life to record.
These spirits, like the two Hamiltons and others here, only meet in memory, in the retold story of a later observer trying to make sense of what happened to them. In Mason’s lyrics the theme of “lines” recurs — spaces of text on a newspaper page, lineages of both privileged and lowly families. Strapped in the electric chair, bad Hamilton sings that this device “gives you no future and takes away your past,” and we’d like to think that some of the lines of our life are so easily unwritten, or that the marks on us are only made by others. But artists like Mason and her collaborators fill in the picture, with more than the surface we know how to present, and the portrait performs the miraculous feat of speaking, truthfully, to the living.