Archive for Othello

Moor and Better

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , on October 18, 2017 by dcairns

Just enjoyed — immensely — Criterion’s Blu-ray of Orson Welles’ OTHELLO* — I opted for the 1952 cut, which I believe to be superior. For one thing, we get Welles narrating the titles, which is always a treat. More spoken titles, please!

“That was a film mainly about the locations,” assessed Fiona. “And what he can do with them,” I added.

As successive restorations have improved the visuals (I first saw the film in a fuzzy 16mm projection with inaudible sound), Welles’ achievement becomes clearer. I still regret Welles’ over-optimism about what he can get away with in terms of lip-sync, or its absence, and his reliance on dirt-speckled freeze-frames for a couple of shots at the climax. But the film, in all its glorious audio-visual incoherence, succeeds as fever-dream, a shimmering flick-book of staggering architectural contortions.

And sometimes it succeeds as Shakespearian drama too — particularly in Welles’ quiet moments, and in everything Fay Compton does as Emilia (the most perceptive character in the play).

I’m doing a Welles thing at the moment. I’ll tell you later.

*My frame-grabs are, perforce, from the old DVD.

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God Send the Prince a Better Companion

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2015 by dcairns

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MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OR ORSON WELLES has one decisive thing in its favour — it’s on the side of its subject. American documentaries about Welles have tended to take an antagonistic view — there’s something about seeing Welles as, ultimately, a failure, which is immensely comforting to mediocrities. It’s wrong to aspire to greatness, you’ll never make it, so Three Cheers for the Ordinary! Showmanship instead of Genius.

But Chuck Workman is a really terrible name to have if you’re setting out to make a film celebrating genius, I have to say. God, it’s really unfair to pick on a guy for his name, isn’t it? Forget I said it.

The problem with the documentary… no, I can’t make it that simple. First among the documentary’s problems is that it tries to cram too much in. This was always going to be tough, when you look at the number of books and documentaries and fictional representations of Welles — such Simon Callow’s still-unfinished trilogy of biographies. How do you do justice to all that, if you’re tackling the plays as well as the films, the incomplete, unreleased works as well as the known classics? You don’t.

The decision to include everything, or a bit of everything, looks heroic at first but is possibly the result of indecision. What else can explain the fleeting reference to the controversial restoration of OTHELLO — “It has a few problems,” — a subject dropped as soon as it’s raised, with absolutely no exposition of what the problems are. Even getting into this subject takes us out of chronology and into Welles’ posthumous reputation, so it derails the narrative. This is a movie that insists on touching upon every point but is in too much of a hurry to elucidate anything.

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The most egregious effect of the need for speed is the treatment of the film clips, all of which are recut, compressed, turned into edited highlights — Workman even plays music underneath to further condense, distort. His idea of the kind of edit you can get away with is also hopelessly optimistic, so that he chops lines together as in a movie trailer, resulting in bizarre non-sequiturs, making blurting blipverts out of some of the best-known scenes in American cinema. When the expected line doesn’t follow, or follows five seconds too soon, the audience member familiar with the clip is thrown for a loop. The audience member new to all this is in an even worse position, force-fed a bowdlerized, mangled version of LADY FROM SHANGHAI or THE THIRD MAN. It’s hugely ironic that a movie which takes Welles’ part should re-edit his films as viciously as ever Columbia or RKO could manage.

Added to this, quality control is low: an early montage of framed photos of Welles features one shot with a Magnum watermark pasted across it — stolen from the internet, defaced, not paid for, thrown out there in the hopes that we won’t notice the very thing we’re being shown. Music choices are hackneyed, anachronistic, inappropriate (L’Apres-Midi  d’un Faun for THE TRIAL??) and rather than bolstering the emotion of the clips they play under — the presumed purpose — they frequently undermine it. Clips are sourced from all over, some of them seemingly from YouTube, so the resolution fluctuates like crazy.

Most of the best stuff comes from Welles’ giant BBC interview, broadcast as Orson Welles: Stories from a Life in Film, but this is hacked up too. There’s nothing as egregious as the ending of The Battle for Citizen Kane, which has Welles saying “I think I made essentially a mistake staying in motion pictures,” but leaves off what he said next — “but it’s a mistake I can’t regret,” which is followed by a heartbreaking, inspiring speech about his love of film. But Workman does use the interview as a source for random pull-quotes, so that some lines do duty for subjects they originally had nothing to do with. It’s a very insidious form of misquotation. Sometimes, people whose big mouths have gotten them in trouble complain of being “quoted out of context” (all quotes are, by their nature, somewhat out of context) — Welles is being quoted in contexts he never knew anything about, contexts devised thirty years after his death by a bloke called Chuck whose day job is editing the Oscars.

The compassion for Welles is admirable, and I think the section on his love of food was skillfully done — affectionate without degenerating into fat jokes. and there’s a nice bit where different Welles interviews are cut together to show how he would vary a story each time he told it. Where the movie has a strong idea, it’s on solid ground, but this rarely happens.

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Of the critical thinkers on display, James Naremore makes the best contribution. I would have liked more of Christopher Welles and even the dreaded Beatrice. Oja Kodar’s bit comes across like unedited rushes, jumping from subject to subject which may well be the way she talks, but the filmmaker is supposed to supply shape. She says some lovely stuff, and announces her willingness to be shamelessly indiscrete — I wish she was allowed to be.

Still, this could be an important moment even if the film is mainly a missed opportunity — a film from America which is resoundingly pro-Welles, which sees the truncated and unfinished films as the fault of a system rather than of the man, which debunks “fear of completion” and admits that the Philistinism of the film industry is the more serious problem — this is a new development, and worthy of celebration in this centennial year.

Dubbed and doubled in doublets

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2015 by dcairns

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CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT at Film Forum, with a Skype call to Beatrice Welles introducing it. A full house – during the Super Bowl, which I gather is kind of a big deal en Amerique – because it’s a rarely screened movie. Though for the internet-savvy, ethically unclean bootlegging type of cinephile, almost nothing is rare anymore. But I’d certainly never had an opportunity to see Welles’ masterpiece on the big screen, and I hadn’t seen this new restoration.

Unfortunately, for reasons no doubt clear to the architect, the auditorium at Film Forum is built along the lines of a corridor in a German expressionist film, and we were at the back, viewing the screen as a tiny, distant window in the darkness. I could easily arrange my TV at home to fill a larger percentage of my field of vision. But I would have missed the intro, the Q&A, and the audience, who worked their way through the various kinds of laughter Shakespearian comedies get: from the “I understood that!” laugh, which is essentially humourless, to the “I understood that and it’s actually funny!” laugh, which is wonderful to hear.

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Beatrice W claimed the film was missing a couple of shots from the Battle of Shrewsbury, but I didn’t spot any gaps. There are several shots in that montage which are ingrained quite specifically in my memory, and they were all present, but it’s such a long and complicated sequence that I guess some less obvious snippets could go astray and I might not notice. Still, I wouldn’t entirely take BW’s word for it without further evidence. After all, she claimed to be Welles’ executor, which I gather is not wholly true – she has the rights to OTHELLO and nothing else, though that hasn’t stopped her threatening with legal action anyone who tries to restore or complete a Welles film. (It seemed like she BELIEVES she embodies Welles’ estate, though, just as she states that her parents stayed married all their lives, ignoring the fact that Welles was living with Oja Kodar for most of that time.) She managed to get the TOUCH OF EVIL restoration pulled from Cannes, and delayed THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND for so long that the editor patiently waiting to complete it, Frank Mazzola, has died of old age. Plus, her “restoration” of OTHELLO is so inauthentic and misguided that I would hesitate before accepting her views of any other restoration job.

It was a relief to see that CHIMES’ restoration hasn’t resulted in a soundtrack cleaned up to a level of purity in never had. The synch is still uncertain – Welles is content to have characters walk through shot, albeit briskly, lips clamped shut, while their voices rabbit on over the soundtrack, so no amount of digital jiggery-pokery was ever going to render things conventionally polished. But this hardly matters. By focussing on technical flaws like this, Pauline Kael damaged the movie’s chances in America. To really love it, you have to accept Welles’ slightly idiosyncratic technical standards.

Welles described his interpretation of Falstaff as being “like a magnificent Christmas tree decorated with vices, but the tree itself is pure and good” – and the film could be said to be similar. Occasional lapses in the generally splendid production values, bold edits that don’t quite come off, dubbed Spaniards who look like dubbed Spaniards – these gives critics something to talk about but are irrelevant to the film’s sweep, beauty and emotional affect, which is greater than any other Welles movie.

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The q&a after the screenings featured some pretty lame questions from the public, but fair play to Beatrice, she did manage to answer most of them in a way that was informative. Apart from being dubbed herself, she mentioned that she was also doubled, since she came down with rheumatic fever, so every time we don’t see her face, it’s actually a little French schoolboy playing the part. But then, everyone else is doubled too – I expect the clanking, armoured Falstaff who galumphs robotically about the battlefield isn’t Welles, and since Gielgud and Moreau were available for short snatches of shooting, any time you don’t see them clearly it’s someone else in a crown or a wig.

“What happened to Keith Baxter?” asked our screening companion, Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, and I had to admit I don’t know. He should have had a much bigger career, I would have thought. Of course, he had the benefit of a great director here, but then so did Robert Arden in MR ARKADIN and he still came rigid and irksome. Baxter had real talent — and didn’t make another film for five years.

There’s a CHIMES book, collecting script, reviews, and interviews, and Baxter’s contribution shines. He talks about Welles filming an army charging in one direction, then optically flipping half the shots so it becomes two armies charging at each other. There’s also good info on the rather musty Spanish DVD, which has unsubtitled interviews with the likes of Jesus Franco. Unfortunately the late Mr. Franco has a very specific and thick accent, and not many teeth, so that my usual benshi film describer, David Wingrove, was only able to give us an approximate idea of what he was saying. But there’s a good bit about Welles filming in a ruined cathedral which had no ceiling and a missing wall, which he turned to his advantage — so much daylight was admitted that Welles didn’t have to use artificial lighting. As Baxter says, “Well, he was a magician.”

A thousand thanks to the Siren for a lovely evening!