END OF AN ERA: CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT AND THE IMMORTAL STORY

August 30, 2016

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) and The Immortal Story (1968) were the last two fiction features that Orson Welles completed. Still to come would be the self-reflective essays of F For Fake (1973) and Filming Othello (’78), as well as the perpetually promised to-be-finished projects like The Other Side of the Wind (1970-’76), but Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story mark an endpoint. Both deal with aging, obsolete men living outside of their times, belonging to previous epochs. In Chimes, Welles’ Falstaff is a ruddy-cheeked representative of the Merrie England torn asunder by the War of the Roses, while his “Mr. Clay” in The Immortal Story is a wealthy Macao merchant who lives inside his account books, completely cut off from the world outside. Chimes at Midnight is the capstone to Welles’ extraordinary career, while The Immortal Story is a dream-like coda. Today both have been released in essential DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion. Chimes at Midnight has never had a satisfactory home video release in the United States until now, subjugated to dupey transfers and muddy audio (always blamed on the original production circumstances, which required extensive dubbing, but the dialogue is crisp and clear on the Criterion disc). Both releases are causes for celebration, and Chimes has pole position for home video release of the year.

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Welles had been making versions of Chimes at Midnight his entire life. When he was fifteen he condensed Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III into Winter of Our Discontent, which he performed at the Todd School for Boys. He tried again on a larger scale for the Mercury Theater production of Five Kings in 1938, a compilation of the history plays whose failure was largely attributed to a rotating stage that kept malfunctioning. He returned the idea to the stage in 1960, where it was now called Chimes at Midnight, and would focus on the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal. It was staged to strong reviews but dwindling attendance in Belfast and Dublin, and plans for a world tour were scrapped. But the material was never far from Welles’ mind, and so in 1964 he began planning a film adaptation, and secured money from a Spanish producer, Emiliano Piedra, but only if he would shoot an adaptation of Treasure Island simultaneously, with the same cast and crew. It is unclear whether Welles ever intended to follow through with Treasure Island, which he had once adapted for the radio, but he put on the image of seriousness, drafting the 2nd Unit director on Chimes, Jess Franco, to lead the Treasure Island shoot. In the third volume of his Welles biography One Man Band, Simon Callow writes that a few scenes were shot on board the Hispaniola that still exist,  which were “energetic” and “in sumptuous Technicolor”. But no more was done with Treasure Island, as Welles funneled all the money into Chimes (he told Peter Bogdanovich it cost “a million-one”).

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Chimes at Midnight is a boisterous, earthy and deeply melancholy film, focusing on Prince Hal’s (Keith Baxter, reprising his role on the stage) relationship to two father figures, his biological one, King Henry IV (John Gielgud, flawless), and Falstaff (Welles), his drunken playmate who teaches him about the good life. When King Henry IV’s reign is threatened by the rebellion of the House of Percy, led by the impulsive Hotspur, Prince Hal is forced to choose between Falstaff’s medieval Merrie olde England and the patriotic militarism of his father. Welles is a nostalgist, seen most vividly in pre-industrial sequences in The Magnificent Ambersons, and he plays Falstaff as a tragic figure placed in a time that no longer needs him. The tone is set in the opening, in which Falstaff, Justice Shallow (Alan Webb), and Silence (Walter Chiari) sit by a fire, talking of the past. Webb plays Shallow with a cracking and wheezing falsetto, and wields that voice with singsong sadness: “Jesus, the days that we have seen!” Falstaff replies slowly, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” They are men of the past, awaiting their flames to be snuffed out.

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James Naremore, in The Magic World of Orson Welles, describes his appearance as a “filthy Santa Claus who has carried ‘gourmandizing’ to a dangerous extreme” (according to Callow Welles wore “knitted chain-mail tights and a suede jerkin worn by Jayne Mansfield in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.”)  Welles is enormous, and enormously filthy, though he gives Falstaff that baby faced cherubic grin of young Charles Foster Kane. He is a walking paradox, an immature and naive old man, an inebriated child. Early on in the Boar’s Head bar, a set designed, painted, and blowtorched by Welles, Falstaff and Hal perform a burlesque of King Henry interrogating his son. They trade the roles back and forth, wearing a pot on their heads as a crown. Welles and his DP Edmond Richard shoot with a barrelling handheld camera in the bar sequences, keeping the viewer as tipsy as its patrons. This parodic scene will become tragedy at the end of the film, when Prince Hal becomes King and disavows his former tippling playmates (“I know thee not, old man”). But Falstaff’s innocence had already been despoiled in the Battle of Shrewsbury, a rightly celebrated sequence that begins with traditional spatial geography, orienting the viewer to each side of the battle, until the cuts get faster and unmoored, the movement is both sped up and slowed down, ending with the camera knee deep in the mud with indistinguishable bodies trembling to their deaths.

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The Immortal Story depicts another tragic, if less sympathetic, old man. Welles had long admired Isak Dinesen, and planned to adapt three of her stories for an omnibus film. Only The Immortal Story was completed. It follows the curious case of Mr. Clay (played by Welles with one of his more distracting fake noses), a rich old bastard and stubborn realist, who wants an old sailor’s story to come true. The story, passed from ship to ship, concerns a rich merchant who hires a sailor for five guineas to impregnate his wife. Clay is a rigid literalist who is childishly upset that this story was a fabrication. He wants to re-enact the story for real, so at least one sailor can tell the tale and mean it. Clay entrusts his accountant Levinsky (Roger Coggio), whose family was killed in a pogrom, to carry out the bizarre task. Levinsky is an ascetic who enters his task with a hidden smile, as if happy to have no more to do with the world. Levinsky hires Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) to play Clay’s wife. Viriginie’s father was once Clay’s partner, but they split and Clay ruined him, kicking him out of his own house. So Virginie is returning to her childhood home, when she still had dreams of a happy life. Clay finds a ragged sailor (Norman Eshley) to complete his menagerie, and the story commences. But as life is not a story, and Clay’s “pieces” do not act as he intends, a mortally threatening outcome. Welles’ first color feature, shot by Willy Kurant, is heavily filtered and gauzy, appropriate for the dirge-like dreaminess of the film. Everyone is withholding themselves, so it is appropriate for Kurant to add more barriers in the form of filters. At only 58 minutes, it is a drowsy, hypnotic miniature about a man whose lack of imagination is his undoing.

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The Criterion discs are piled high with useful extras, including an extraordinary interview with Orson Welles on the Merv Griffin show, included on the Chimes at Midnight disc. It was conducted in Spain while a haggard, unshaven Welles was sitting at a moviola in the process of editing Chimes. He plays back the just-edited battle sequence  while Griffin peppers him with questions about Kane and War of the Worlds. Though clearly exhausted and seemingly near-collapse, Welles answers these tired questions with grace and charm, hoping for a box-office boost that would never come. Though studios admired Chimes,  Fox’s Darryl Zanuck called it “far and away the best film in this category I have seen”, but didn’t pick it up for distribution. It eventually received a small release (presented by Harry Saltzman and released by Peppercorn-Wormser, Inc. Film Enterprises), but was doomed by a harsh (and bizarre) New York Times review by Bosley Crowther (“a big, squashy, tatterdemalion show.”) It received a strong notice from Pauline Kael in The New Republic, writing that it “came and went so fast there was hardly time to tell people about it, but it should be back (it should be around forever) and it should be seen.” With the Criterion disc it is now possible to follow Kael’s sage advice.

FINISHING THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND: AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER BOGDANOVICH AND FILIP JAN RYMSZA

May 26, 2015

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 Our story is about a special group of these, the richest, smartest, the chicest. The jet-set ones. Has to do with a kind of voyeurism. I’d call it emotional parasitism. It has to do with the mystique of the he-man. This picture is against he-men. – Orson Welles

The above quote is from Orson Welles in Spain (1966), a 10-minute short made by Albert and David Maysles in which Welles woos potential investors about a bullfighting movie called The Sacred Beasts. The main character was Ernest Hemingway manqué Jake Hannaford, and after Sacred Beasts went bust Welles transferred Hannaford whole into The Other Side of the Wind. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait of another kind of machismo, that of a swaggering 70s auteur, with Hannaford now a doomed director (played by John Huston), his downfall captured in a densely edited collage of 35mm, 16mm and 8mm film. Welles would shoot from 1970 – 1976, but like much of his late work, post-production was never completed due to a tangled series of economic calamities, from a producer absconding with money, Welles’ absent business sense, and Iranian investments locked up because of the overthrow of the Shah. The negative was locked in a French lab with competing rights claims from Welles’ partner and collaborator Oja Kodar, his daughter Beatrice Welles, and the Paris film company Les Films de l’Astrophore, run by Mehdi Boushehri (one of the original investors in the project).

For decades now there have been teases that the film, which was completely shot and partially edited by Welles, would see the light of a projector. Today we are closer than ever to that tantalizing goal, thanks to the efforts of producers Filip Jan Rymsza, Frank Marshall and Jens Koethner Kaul, who helped to negotiate an agreement between Kodar, Beatrice Welles and Bousherhi to gain access to the negative. Now the work begins of resurrecting a feature left for dead forty years ago. So Rymsza and the production team (including advisor Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’s friend and a co-star in the film) has started an IndieGogo campaign to raise $2 million to complete the production of The Other Side of the Wind  (you can donate here: www.orsonslastfilm.com). They have much left to do, including logging all of the Welles’ voluminous notes, organizing and scanning the negative, editing based on Welles’ instructions, color-correcting, and producing and mixing the music and effects.

Filip Jan Rymsza and Peter Bogdanovich took some time to talk to me about Welles, The Other Side of the Wind, and the ongoing IndieGogo campaign, getting into the atmosphere on the set, Welles’ famous prudery, and why they chose crowdfunding to get The Other Side of the Wind into the world.

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Peter, could you describe what the atmosphere was like on the set, and Welles’ state of mind going into the feature?

PB: He was very buoyant. He called me, this was when I was playing a different role. I started out playing a cineaste, writing a book about John Huston’s character, and the trick was, he wanted me to be asking these pseudo-intellectual questions, some of which he made up, or I’d have to make up. He wanted me to do it like Jerry Lewis, with the voice. So I would ask questions like [imitating Jerry Lewis], “Do you believe that the cinema is a phallus?” [Joseph McBride claims to be the one who uttered this line in his book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? – we’ll discover who’s right when the film comes out]. The first day of shooting he called and said, “What are you doing Thursday?” I said, I’m going to Texas to shoot The Last Picture Show”, a script that he had read, and what he referred to as “a dirty picture”. He asked if I could go and shoot with him on Thursday, so I said, “What are you shooting? – I’m shooting a dirty picture. You’re shooting a dirty picture so I’m shooting a dirty picture.” And that’s how he would refer to it, jokingly of course. And I went down to Texas for Last Picture Show. By the time we were shooting again on Other Side of the Wind, some months later, I was playing a different part. I ended up playing a leading role. The atmosphere on the set, there wasn’t very many people there…Orson was very jolly, very happy. He was always in very good humor when he was shooting.

 

I’m curious about the tone of the film. Is it a satire of the film business?

PB: That’s hard to say because I haven’t seen it – nobody’s seen the whole film. There is a satirical aspect to it. There is also a tragic element too. It begins with his death. At the beginning Huston’s character dies at the end of his 70th birthday celebration, in a car accident. You see pictures of the burnt-out Porsche he was driving. So it begins right away with tragedy. And it’s funny at times. But it’s not really a comedy at all. When Huston asked him what the movie was about, he said, “It’s about us, John. About a bastard director.”

 

Do you think there’s anything autobiographical in there?

PB: Oh yeah. I’m sure of it. He really wanted to play the part himself. But he felt Huston was more right for it. He said,  “I should play the part. It’s a goddamn good part. But he’s right for it, damn it.”

 

What was his relationship like with Huston?

PB: They were long-time friends. They both made their first feature the same year, 1941, and Orson was in a couple of films that Huston made. They were friendly. John was particularly impressed with Orson’s method of shooting, because it was so unorthodox. So unlike the big studio pictures that John used to make. John found it refreshing to have a small crew, changing the dialogue a little bit every day. What seemed like a haphazard form of shooting but it wasn’t, because Orson knew exactly what he wanted to do.

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Peter, you mentioned the unorthodox style of the film. He’s using 8mm, 16mm, it seems ahead of its time. The editing seems very dense. Did he tell you what style he was going for?

PB: I remember him saying that the editing would take a while. The kind of thing you can shoot in eight weeks but takes eight years to cut. It ended up more so [laughs]. The conceit of the picture is that you’re seeing a kind of documentary of Huston’s last day on earth. It’s put together from all this footage that was supposedly shot on the day of his birthday by various people. Students, TV news, all these different kinds of media were invited. In the story, after he died, the documentary of that last day is put together. That’s what we’re seeing. Interspersed with that, during the party sequence (the bulk of the movie), they stop and they show clips from the movie the Huston character is making. They show it in the projection room, and eventually in a drive-in screen. Which are also very densely cut. Shot in 35mm, and very, I guess, arty and complicated. Orson cut most of that stuff already.

 

I was going to ask, of all of the challenges of this film, the greatest would have to be editing the rest of it together, considering the existing footage. Have you hired an editor?

FR: Yeah, we have. Alfonso Gonçalves, who has worked with quite a few interesting filmmakers. He’s involved with the Todd Haynes, they did Mildred Pierce together. He did Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Only Lovers Left Alive. Even though he’s had success he’s chosen to remain in art cinema. With each film, his editing takes on the character of the film, so he’s somebody who has amazing intuition, and was malleable. We were very excited by the prospect of working and collaborating with him.

We’ve done a lot of due diligence in terms of going back through the script, the notes. There were five feet of scripts, an enormous amount of data to process. All the way from the beginning, through the very long process, as Orson would re-write. To the cutting script, which had a lot of annotations in it. Orson sent it back and forth, a lot of times across the Atlantic – he had his editors doing some work in Paris. There is a wealth of information.

 

 Filip, how did you first get involved?

FR: Six years ago. It started here in Cannes. I was simply told without any sort of detail that the rights were available, and that was my entry point. That plus the script. That was enough to plant the seed, to pique my curiosity, and then for the next three years I was trying to find my bearings, figure out what it is that that meant, that the rights were available. That was the biggest challenge. It was a very complicated title. That was how the process began, finding a way to acquire the negative and be able to finish the film.

 

The negative was at a French lab that went bankrupt?

FR: That is correct. It was under court order, because the French operate under Napoleonic law. So moral rights were split in a way where it was up to me to bring all the parties together, and figure out a way to lift that court order. Everybody had to agree to a method by which to finish the film, but also to allow us to do so.

 

Who were all of the parties that you had to bring together?

FR: Three main parties. Mehdi Boucherie, Oja Kodar [Welles’ partner and collaborator], and Orson’s daughter, Beatrice, who is in charge of the estate.

 

How difficult was it to get them on the same page?

FR: It was a challenge. Everybody is motivated by something else. The commonality here is everyone eventually wanted the film done. The emphasis now has shifted to getting the film done.

 

Why did you decide to go the crowdfunding route with Indiegogo?

FR: They approached us back in December, and we started talking about it internally. Everybody decided this was very much in keeping with the way that Orson went about his films. And being able to retain control, something that he fought for his entire career. We just thought it would be a wonderful thing to bring the film to his fans, and secondarily, it’s a very expensive undertaking, which bucks the independent film model. It’s a film that’s expensive to finish, also we had to account for the rights, and it would be different if this was a restoration or re-release, but this is a new film, that will have a 2015 release. We needed the extra money to be able to finish it and bring it to distributors, and that way we could retain control.

 

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What stage are you at now? Have you scanned the negative?

FR: No, it’s still in the future. We’re still doing a lot of organizing. Once you start scanning you really have to go into it knowing exactly what you’re looking at. What we’ve been doing is cataloguing, and putting together the negative in a strategic way, putting it into scenes, and separating the camera negative from the inter-negative. So once it goes into the scan we’ll know where everything is. We’re also very much relying on the IndieGogo campaign because this will help us accelerate this process. These funds are important for us to finish the film in a manner we think is fitting of such a great piece of art.

PB: It’s a great help that Orson left so many notes, so that post-production is already organized for us. Orson would change things every day.

 

How detailed are the notes, do they include instructions from shot to shot?

FR: Yeah. Some of them address specific scenes he was working on, certain things he wanted printed. Quite a bit talked about the Lilie Palmer scenes [she plays Zarah Valeska, a ranch owner], specific things that he wanted. Even if you look at some of the rushes, certain scenes he had already blown up. They are fairly extensive.

 

If you do not get the full amount requested in the IndieGogo campaign, are you still confident you will get the film released?

FR: Yeah, we’re confident, but we don’t want to take any urgency from the campaign. It is not an arbitrary amount that we landed on. It’s part of a bigger budget. The budget for this is much bigger than two million, but that’s what we thought we would need to do it quickly. If we fall short of the goal, obviously we’re still going to finish the film, but the process could drag out. Now somehow we’ll have to find, whatever the shortfall is, will still have to be accounted for.

 

Does the film push anything content-wise for Welles? I’ve read that he was prudish when it came to sexual matters.

PB: That’s true, Orson was. I think Oja Kodar, his partner and writer, who worked very closely with him, she being European (Hungarian and Croatian), she had a different kind of attitude about sexual stuff. She was more open and free about it. Orson was usually amused by her. I wouldn’t say embarrassed, but she knew how to make him blush, which was quite charming. He was reticent about sexual stuff, but he made an extraordinarily sexy sequence in The Other Side of the Wind, in the front seat of a car. Quite an amazing sequence. Let me put it this way, he overcame his reticence, and came up with a very powerful sex scene.

FR: It’s interesting on the note of authorship. He could do it maybe because he was wearing the mask of the John Huston director, so that was liberating. It was something that he saw as taboo, and in this regard, could justify it in that manner.

 

How much input to Oja have on the script?

PB: They worked together on it from the beginning.

 

Was there improvisation on the set?

PB: No, he was very specific about what he wanted us to say. Usually he would come up with a slightly revised version of what was in the script. He would go to the typewriter and re-type it, give it to us, and say, “This is what I want you to say”. There wasn’t a lot of ad-libbing.

 

Peter, considering how many formats Welles was using for this film, and the density of the editing – how do you think he would’ve adapted to using digital tools?

PB: I think he would be absolutely thrilled with the digital process. I don’t know if he would do it himself, like he did with film. He did all the editing himself on a flatbed. With the digital he would love it, because it’s so fast. He would have welcomed this technology with open arms.

FR: He was very playful, I was told, from the various editors that we talked to. He wanted to see a lot of things. He would have various editors cut the same sequence in different ways. There was a playfulness to it, and obviously in an online editing system, he would be able to do that, backtracking the clips and stuff, having to print all that – it certainly would have made his process much easier.

PB: Oh God, yes.

 

You are still aiming to get the film released for 2015?

FR: If we can get the money it becomes realistic. But if we don’t, then less so. We never operated with a delivery date in mind. We always thought it was a process. There are so many unknowns. We certainly didn’t realize we would be going through so many scripts, which we’ve been going through since November. We certainly didn’t realize that with the negative, there would be so much material. 1.6 tons. And a lot of it is already cut up into tiny pieces. A lot of it will have to be reconstituted. And it’s all mixed up. Initially it wasn’t really well catalogued. Everyone was working off of a handwritten inventory from 1974. So having to go back and create something for a digital workflow – put everything in an Excel spreadsheet and make things searchable – these things take a lot of time. At first I thought we could knock that out in a few weeks, and here we are now, having started in November, and still doing parts of it. It’s labor intensive. The more resources we have, the better and faster we can do it.

 

So you intend to have a full theatrical run once the film is ready?

FR: Absolutely. That’s why we’ve been going through this process, to bring on a like-minded distributor, somebody who saw a theatrical life. We just think there’s a wonderful marketing opportunity to something like this. It’s not an obvious film, but we feel there’s a way that this can be done. Our whole approach has been to do this in the manner it would have been released in ’76 or ’77. So we hope it’ll have a nice long theatrical life.

PB: It’s not dated. The material isn’t dated. It’s a period piece now, because it was shot in the ‘70s, but I don’t believe it’s dated in any way. It’s very modern. And it deals with egos, deception, betrayal, and all the things that Orson was interested in.

I AM NOT WHAT I AM: ORSON WELLES’ OTHELLO (1952)

April 29, 2014

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Othello (1952) marked the beginning of Orson Welles’ exile from Hollywood, its funding provided by an Italian businessman soon to go bankrupt. It was the first of endless financing troubles that would plague his prolific years abroad. After he made the budget-strapped studio bound Macbeth (1948) for Republic, he was eager to make a full dress Shakespeare adaptation with elaborate sets designed by Alexandre Trauner. When the cash disappeared, he improvised, with Trauner becoming a location scout while locals were hired to sew period-appropriate clothing. The itinerant production moved between in four towns in Morocco and five in Italy. Shot over the course of two years, as Welles took on acting jobs to raise money, the film is a dizzying patchwork. Welles adapts his style to the circumstances, mostly abandoning the long takes so admired by Andre Bazin, and turning to rapid, jarring edits to sew the disparate material together. It was the first time he had final cut since Citizen Kane, and the result is vertiginous and disorienting, both a reflection of Othello’s deteriorating psyche and the jury-rigged nature of the film’s production.

A new 2K scan of the controversial 1992 restoration is now touring the United States courtesy of Carlotta Films, and has began its run at Film Forum in NYC and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (see all the future venues here). The original score and sound effects were re-recorded, an attempt to bring a 1950s film up to 1990s technical standards that replaced the audio instead of preserving what Welles produced (read Jonathan Rosenbaum for more details). With that caveat stated, this strange and hypnotic movie has never looked better.

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After he completed shooting Macbeth in July of 1947, Welles went to France to develop an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with his production designer Alexandre Trauner. Welles recounts that project’s implosion in his essayistic documentary Filming Othello (1978):

suddenly Alexander Korda, who was our producer, came to me and said, “my dear fellow I need dollars. I want to sell it to America.” He did, Jose Ferrer played it and got the Academy Award, and that’s the end of that story. It was supposed to be commercial, and it wasn’t, it was supposed to make me rich, and it didn’t.

So instead Welles took an acting job as the occultist Cagliostro in Black Magic (1949), which was made at Scalera Film Studios in Rome. There he found a potential patron in Michele Scalera, who agreed to fund his Othello, although he pushed for an Italian cast in order to receive grants from the government. Welles had already cast Italian actress Lea Padovani as Desdemona, with whom he was pursuing a very public romance. Their relationship became instant tabloid fodder. Padovani recalled that:

A genius like that does nothing by halves, and for him love was a delirium…. He was capable of unforgettable things. One day at the Caffe Cipriani in Venice he got down on his knees, kissed the edge of my skirt, and pronounced my name quietly. I was breathless with emotion.

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Their affair was brief and ended noisily – she reportedly knocked him out with a door stopper. Regardless of the details of their affair, she was off the movie. In his new book Orson Welles in Italy Alberto Anile reports that Welles was forced to trash the film he had shot with Padovani, reported by the Venetian press as 3,000 meters, or one hour and fifty minutes of material. He then had to re-trench and re-envision the movie, while Scalera was conning the Italian government. Scalera applied for a permit to shoot Othello in English and Italian, and listed Vittorio de Sica and Gina Lollobrigida among the cast to pass the Italian actor quota, despite the fact they would not appear in the film. At this time Betsy Blair, Gene Kelly’s wife, had become the nominal Desdemona, and was in Mogador when Welles heard the news that Scalera was withholding funding, and that the period costumes would be held up in storage. The common story is that Scalera went bankrupt, but Anile writes that though he was losing money, Scalera was not broke. It was a power play to get Welles to leave Africa and return to Italy so he could maintain more control over the production.

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Scalera’s ruse failed, as Welles and his team kept finding creative solutions to their money problems. They famously shot Roderigo’s death scene in a Turkish bath, so there was no need for the costumes, while a thick wall of steam obscured their sparsely detailed set. While the idea has always been attributed to Welles, Blair recalls that it was conceived by Trauner, whom she saw sketching the concept and pitching it to Welles, who ecstatically agreed to it. No matter who the idea originated with, it represents the openness of Welles’ team and his artistic credo. Welles said, “It’s a basic part of the way I work with a group of people — I always move. Not because I’m patient, but because of what I think will happen to the picture if I don’t.” Another of those movements was firing Blair and finally settling on Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona. Welles was afraid of rigidity setting in, and always kept the production moving forward, even if it was in a series of herky jerky stops and starts.

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Eventually Scalera withdrew the remainder of his funds unless Welles returned to Italy, but the stubborn director was committed to his new vision. Enough so he began to fund it out of his own pocket from money earned at acting jobs (Prince of Foxes, The Black Rose). When watching Othello a single cut can span both years and continents. Despite the stressful, ad hoc circumstances, the film is remarkably single-minded in its visual scheme. It moves from the bright coastal light of the Mogador coast to the darkening cell interiors of Othello’s Moroccan castle. Latticework-spiderweb imagery abounds, each character crisscrossed by shadow and then further sliced by the aggressive editing, which never seems to let bodies complete a motion before cutting to a new angle, the world shifting beneath their feet.

VACATION TIPS FROM ORSON WELLES

July 21, 2009

If anyone can still afford to go on vacation, it would be worthwhile to pop in the DVD of Around the World with Orson Welles (or stream on Netflix) before the journey. You’ll learn important tips about expatriate American bohemians and the beauties of Basque sports. A seven part documentary series he filmed for British TV in 1955, it takes him to Basque country (2 episodes worth), almshouses in England, bullfights in Spain, and the St. Germain-des-pres section of Paris. Two parts are absent from the disc:  The Third Man in Vienna is sadly missing, and  The Tragedy of Lurs , which considers the case of a convicted murderer of a British tourist family, Gaston Dominici, was never completed. Joseph McBride, in Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, relates that it was “partially restored for French television in 2000, and released with a new documentary written and directed by Christophe Cognet, The Dominici Affair.” These travel essays, veritable home movies, are an immensely enjoyable tour through eccentric pockets of Europe.

Welles, fresh off his globe-hopping thriller Mr. Arkadin, is in a chipper mood throughout, likely happy to be far away from the producers who would cut his films to ribbons (as happened with Arkadin). Peeking his cherubic face into loosely styled interviews with chatty locals, the series is a fascinating glimpse into Welles’ off-camera personality. All the anecdotes about his gregarious camaraderie and booming laugh ring throughout each episode. It’s not completely off-the-cuff, however, as Welles continually comes around to ideas regarding independence, individuality, and the question of dignity in aging.

There is a grab bag of styles throughout the show, with the St. Germain section funneling Welles’ observations through Art Buchwald’s typewriter. Framed as a piece he’s writing about the neighborhood, with Welles as his subject, it opens with an overheated nightclub montage, whip-pans settling under the nose of a clarinet player intercut with furious lindy hoppers. These sensationalistic elements are far afield from Welles’ concerns here, and McBride says that some shots (of Paris intellectuals Jean Cocteau, Simone de Beauvoir, and others) were added by producers after shooting. Even on quickie TV shoots Welles couldn’t get away from studio meddling!

Anyhow, his main subject here is expatriate American eccentric Raymond Duncan, who makes everything he needs, and who says, you should “not need what you cannot make”. Clad in a homemade tunic and sandals, this proto-Beatnik discusses independence, (Duncan: “The greatest thing in the world.” Welles” I say, Here Here!”), the decline of the west as a result of the rise of the pantaloon, and American’s creeping tendency toward conformism. The exchange is lengthy and detailed, and one senses Welles’ sympathies fade only when Duncan mentions that he doesn’t allow women to wear pants at the theater he runs. Welles raises an eyebrow, prods him about the women’s independence, and pivots into the influence of Puritanism on Duncan’s brand of radical freedom.

The section entitled “London” concerns itself with question of aging. The first half of the film finds Welles conversing with a gaggle of giggling old widows, residents of a local almshouse that cares for them. He interrogates them about their politics (they’re all Tories), the length of their stay, and their dining habits. He draws out that none of them invite the others over for dinner, and jovially chides them for their rudeness. This loose dialogue is immensely charming, illuminating the dignity of these poor old women and their curiosity regarding this portly stranger. McBride draws a parallel between this and the following segment with the lost ending of The Magnificent Ambersons. He quotes Welles describing the sequence in a decrepit rooming house as being about “the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age, and particularly with impecunious old age.” Contrast this to the statement he makes about the almshouse:

“To be old and indigent is not just an economic problem, it can be a tragedy in human terms, a tragedy of loneliness, a loss of dignity, a loss of the sense of individuality. And that’s why I admire, and I think British people should be so proud of, institutions like this almshouse.”

The second half of the episode talks with three retired soldiers living at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. Welles draws them out about the details of their uniforms, old war stories, and the everyday details of their life, which they discuss with relish. Their lion in winter bearing, as McBride notes, bears a strong resemblance to Richard Bennett’s Major Amberson. They watch as the world passes them by, but maintain their dignity throughout, regardless of their reduced circumstances. Things loosen up even more when they hit the local pub in full regalia, and Welles queries them about their living quarters, concerned that they never have time to themselves. The oldest of the group, at 85, strongly states they have their own small rooms, enough to shut the door and read a book if need be. Stating that those over 90 need additional assistance in the ward, Welles wisely notes that this elderly bull seems like he could live fully for at least another decade. In emphasizing their virility, the man notes that they are enjoying the “evening of life in independent retirement”, repeating the phrase with his two friends, proud of their station in life. Welles quotes it again at the close of the show, as the gentleman stride back to their military home. It’s a beautiful segment, and the high point of the series.

I have yet to mention the delightful Basque section, with its uncanny images of pigeon hunting (and the firecracker bull!), or even the  bullfighting show dryly hosted by Kenneth Tynan and his wife Elaine Dundy, but there’s nothing that can top those old Chelsea warriors, so I won’t even deign to try.

BOOKS ON FILM: A LIST

June 9, 2009

The problem of the young cinephile: what to see next? Growing up in movie-thin Buffalo, I had to consult the oracles: movie critics in bigger cities. Then there was the winnowing process – who to trust and who to ignore? Once I locked in on a kindred spirit, I followed in lockstep with their viewing and reading recommendations. Soon a whole network of informed writers radiated from my admiration of one critic, and opened up whole new vistas of learning. For me, that critic was Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader. Sure, I also gobbled up the words of J. Hoberman at the Village Voice, but Rosenbaum had a combative skepticism that suited my own tastes of the time, and I eagerly anticipated his work every week. His enthusiasms also led me to the work of Manny Farber, Joe Dante, Jacques Rivette, and a whole host of others.

Why the reminiscing? Well, the enigmatically named MovieMan0283 of The Dancing Image started a meme on his site, listing the ten film books that left the greatest impression on him. He encouraged other film bloggers to do the same, and it’s been all over the internet this past week. I noticed it first at Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running. Below the fold is my contribution, all of them determining factors towards my questionable taste.

1. The Chicago Reader‘s Brief Reviews Archive: Admittedly, this is cheating, but ever since I discovered this vast trove of critical nuggets from Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, I’ve considered it my go-to reference book, despite its mere virtual existence. With the click of my sweaty fingers, I could read the concise and informed opinion of my two favorite writers on just about any cinematic subject at hand. Need a recommendation for an upcoming pre-code series? Hmm…Me and My Gal was Manny Farber’s favorite Raoul Walsh, sez Rosenbaum, and that it’s “A small picture, but an ecstatic one.” Sold!  I’ve consulted the site more than anything bound in pulp, and I daresay I’m the better for it.

2. Negative Space, by Manny Farber (1971, 1999): See, film critics can be great writers! Just read Negative Space, the only published collection of Farber’s work. His dense, allusive prose takes as much time to unpack as some of the films he adores (Scarface, Me and My Gal, Wavelength), and goshdarnit if he doesn’t have a cantakerously careening essay on Howard Hawks. On Scarface, and also not a bad description of his writing: “The image seems unique because of its moody energy: it is a movie of quick-moving actions, inner tension, and more angularity per inch of screen than any street film in history.”  (and is Amazon lying to me or is this out of print? A tragedy, if so, despite its Kindle availability)

 

3. Howard Hawks, by Robin Wood (1981, 2006):  Of all the words I’ve consumed about Howard Hawks, these were the first and the most influential. His introduction to the 1981 edition told me that “the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ was too rigid”, and that Mozart worked for an audience as much as Hawks. His thematic breakdown of the work still holds up, as does his enthusiasm (also see his excellent recent monograph on Rio Bravo). I’ll also always agree with him on this point: “If I were asked to chose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo.”

4. A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson (1975-2002): If I could rewrite history, I would have told my youthful self to purchase Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema instead of this tome, but I can’t, so here we are. I’ve grown weary of Mr. Thomson and his inability to engage with contemporary cinema (see his lazy entries on Abbas Kiaorstami and Wes Anderson, for instance), but his elegant phrasing and embrace of Hawks (sensing a theme?) were definitely valuable, and it’s impossible to discount this book’s importance in shaping my young mind. The only thing that sticks with me from that book is his epic ode to Johnny Carson, both moving and mystifying for this Letterman-aged viewer.

5. This is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich (1992, 1998): Before Hawks, Welles was my favorite – and where Hawks was tight-lipped, Welles was expansive. An incredibly entertaining romp through Welles’ astonishing career, with the added benefit of an exhaustive career chronology, an appendix of the scenes cut from The Magnificent Ambersons, and the memo Welles sent Universal with his suggested revisions to Touch of Evil. A treasure trove of research material to please any budding Wellesian. Also plenty to throw back at those who say Welles declined after Citizen Kane, or similarly ill-informed gobbledygook.

6. Movie Mutations, by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, et. al. (2003): My most obscure choice introduced me to a number of young cinephiles, and clued me in to the vibrant journals Senses of Cinema Rougeand Cinema ScopeIt lent me a sense that I belonged to a community, not just a darkened living room. First published as a series of letters in the French magazine Trafic, it brought together Rosenbaum, Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour. These epistles were added together with a few essays on transnational cinematic exchanges: Jones on Tsai Ming-liang, Shigehiko Hasumi on Hawks (!), and an excellent tete-a-tete between Martin and James Naremore on academic film study (which I was about to enter). This volume was very prescient in regards to the bourgeoning online film community, and in a sense paved the way for my own modest entry into the online film conversation.

7. Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich (1997): Another superb book of interviews from Bogdanovich, this time chatting with a gaggle of the greatest talents from Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Aldrich to Walsh (Hawks is included, of course). Rich with production minutae and backstage anecodotes, it’s an invaluable resource, and I find myself always coming back to it. My recent infatuation with Leo McCarey led me to it recently, and his reticence at discussing one of his masterpieces, Make Way for Tomorrow, is palpable and moving: “It was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny. It’s difficult for me to talk about, but I think it was very beautiful.”

 

8. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, by David Bordwell (1988): This is available for free as a PDF at the link provided, so download it now. Got it? OK, this is the most in-depth auteur study I’ve ever read, exhaustively covering Ozu’s style (his 360 degree use of space, low-angle camera, etc.) as well as the culture he came out of. Definitive in every sense, and essential for an understanding of one of the greats. I came to it while writing a forgotten paper on An Autumn Afternoon, and its erudition, depth, and breadth are staggering. Read his blog, too!

9. Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel, by Jose de la Colina & Tomas Perez Turrent (1986, 1992): Bunuel’s autiobiography, My Last Sigh, is phenomenal (I’ve never forgotten his poetic description of his lost sex drive), but the offhanded charm of this collection of interviews was too hard to resist. Full of important lessons, like, “Let’s put a little rum in our coffee like they do in Spanish country towns. It gives coffee a nice smell.”

10. Fun in a Chinese Laundry, by Josef von Sternberg (1965) & A Third Face, by Sam Fuller (2002): I cheated at the beginning, so it’s only appropriate I do so at the close. These cooly enigmatic (Sternberg) and riotously entertaining (Fuller) autobiographies are fascinating reflections of these directors respective artistic personalities. Von Sternberg is dry, ironic, and withholding: “The system of films can be a severe shock to anyone whose mind has made progress since childhood.” Fuller is blunt and hilarious: “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.” Both revelatory in their own way.