WELLES AND SHAKESPEARE: THREE COLLABORATIONS


               
              
              
              
              
         [Photo by Carl Van Vechten]


The
poetry of a play by Shakespeare is characterized by an almost
supernatural density of imagery and invention, wordplay, wit and
insight.  Though designed to fly by in two hours' traffic
upon a stage it simply cannot be absorbed fully on a single hearing or
reading, composed as it is of  a torrent of miraculous phrases and passages that
repay continual study.  The sheer abundance, the sheer generosity
of it is overwhelming.

Orson Welles completed three films based on Shakespeare plays — Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff (Chimes At Midnight)
His interest, as it became clear over time, was not simply in mounting the plays within the cinematic
medium but pushing the medium to supply a cinematic equivalent to
Shakespeare's poetry.  In Falstaff,
I would argue, he finally succeeded in this ambition.  In the
process he completely rethought the approach to cinema he employed in
his early masterpieces Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Citizen Kane, though
dominated aesthetically by scenes shot in deep focus and playing in
long takes, in fact employs a grab-bag of cinematic techniques —
process shots involving backscreen projection, models and matte
paintings, double-exposures, faked newsreel footage.  In The Magnificent Ambersons,
Welles experimented with even longer and more elaborately choreographed
single-take scenes, some of which were cut up by Robert Wise at the
behest of RKO when they took the film away from Welles — but Welles
also included pictorial trick shots that violate the aesthetic of the
single-take scenes.

With The Stranger, Welles was
trying to work within the boundaries of a
more conventional studio style,
but he eschewed trick shots almost entirely and included one long,
stunning single-take scene made with a crane on tracks in a forest.  In The Lady From Shanghai
he tried his best to stick to location photography and to incorporate
long single-take scenes, but the film was so meddled with by Columbia
that we don't have a clear record of Welles's vision for the film as a whole.

All this was prelude to his first Shakespeare adaptation for film, Macbeth,
made cheaply and quickly for Republic Pictures.  The 23-day
shooting schedule meant that Welles had to limit his technical
ambitions for the film.  His increasing fascination with long
single-take scenes resulted in one extraordinary feat — a
10-minute shot which records the entire episode leading up to and including the murder of Duncan
and the arrival of Macduff, who discovers the crime.  It plays
out on several levels of the studio set, covered by pans, tracks and
crane moves.

There are two other less extraordinary single-take scenes of some
length.  One records the episode in which Macduff learns of the
deaths of all his “pretty ones”.  This is taken from a fixed
camera position on a studio-exterior set without great spatial
interest.  The four actors involved move about in ways that often
feel arbitrary in order to create different groupings of the characters
and heighten the complexity of the shot.  The other shot records the
scene in which Macbeth, on the parapet of Dunsinane, learns of the
approach of Macduff and his armies and then moves inside to discuss
Lady Macbeth's mental health with her doctor.  Again, the studio
sets here don't offer much spatial complexity and the choreography is not
especially dynamic.

Two shorter scenes involving dynamic camera moves are more
powerful.  In one, the camera starts on a close-up of Macbeth, left
alone in the banqueting hall, and moves with him, pulling back, as he
races outdoors to the top of a rock and summons the weird
sisters.  This is followed shortly by a high crane shot that swoops down
slowly onto the figure of Macbeth and ends in a close-up on his
upturned face.

The rest of the film employs a more conventional editing of shorter
shots.  Some of these shots are visually arresting, involving
dynamic camera moves and angles, but many more are merely
utilitarian.  There are a few interpolated shots taken on real
exteriors, a couple of shots employing matte paintings and, in the
final battle scene, a series of shots manipulated with optical
zooms.  Taken as a whole, the visual strategy of the film is
chaotic.

When he came to make Othello
a
few years later, Welles said he planned to shoot it all on built sets
and in long takes — making it, in effect, an extension of the approach
he took with the long single-take studio-bound scenes in Macbeth.  He had been disappointed with the execution of the sets he designed for Macbeth, which do indeed look pretty cheesy most of the time — but he had a superb designer for Othello, Alexander Trauner, who sketched out elaborate sets for the film, meant to
be built at the Victorine Studio in Nice.  Welles was thrilled
with the sets Trauner envisioned and always spoke of them wistfully in
later years.

All of Welles' plans for Othello had to be abandoned, however, when the film's
original financing fell through.  Welles could only afford to
shoot in real locations, few of which were suitable for the entirety
of a given scene.  In addition, limitations on equipment and the size of the crew
meant that he could not shoot long takes, which, as he explained,
require the technical resources of a large studio production unit.

These problems altered Welles' whole aesthetic approach to the film,
since he would not only have to use short takes more or less exclusively but he
would also have to match shots taken in disparate locations within a
single scene.

His response was masterful.  He concentrated the full power of his
visual imagination on the individual shots — almost all of which, however brief, record
deep, dynamic spaces and boldly choreographed movement — and used rhythmic, musical editing in an attempt to unify them
into a coherent artistic whole.

The result was impressive but not uniformly successful.  Clearly Welles was improvising
from day to day, sometimes desperately — the production was halted on numerous occasions when
funds ran out, necessitating changes of locale and the loss of actors
due to conflicting commitments.  The “music” of the editing was
something Welles could not always control expressively — often he was
just trying to keep the beat, to bridge extreme gaps in continuity.

But necessity had led him to new possibilities of invention.  He would deploy them spectacularly in Falstaff. 
In that film he would shoot to the music of the editing he
envisioned, without the technical vexations created by Othello's near-fatal financial emergencies.  There would be no long, virtuoso single-take scenes
but each shot would be dense, beautifully choreographed, with its own
dynamic spatial complexity.  These shots would be utterly
involving in themselves

— and Welles would be able to preserve a sense of spatial continuity
from shot to shot to a degree that had not been possible on Othello
but the images would flow by with a relentless momentum, regulated by the metric of the editing.

Welles would not linger on the rich poetry of his individual shots but
race through them — as Shakespeare races through the rich poetry
of his texts. 
The great battle scene in the film offers the most extraordinary
vindication of Welles's approach.  Though made up of scores of
short shots, each is like a film within a film — bold, dynamic,
involving.  You feel you could linger on every one of them
indefinitely.

When he was 19, Welles wrote this about Shakespeare — “His
language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and the moon.  He
wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like
heartbeats.”  It's not too much to say that in the images of Falstaff Welles found a cinematic equivalent to Shakespeare's poetry — a true visual complement.
 
Which is to say that Welles took cinema as far, or nearly as far, as Shakespeare took the
English language — and that's as far as anyone has ever taken it.

GEORGE MARSHALL

George Marshall was one of the greatest of all Americans — the
organizer of victory in WWII, the rebuilder of Europe after the war,
the only professional soldier who has ever won the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was also the most boring of great Americans, a man who never sought
glory, who concentrated on practical matters, who made the glory of
others possible.  But he was a deep thinker about war. 
“Military power wins battles,” he said, “but spiritual power wins
wars.”  He was the anti-Rumsfeld.  Two weeks after America
entered WWII Marshall set up a commission to plan for the occupation of
Germany and Japan, realizing how easy it would be to win the war but
lose the peace, as we have done in Iraq.  In 1945 he urged his
generals to end the war as quickly as possible, afraid that extending
our government on a war footing, with its attendant centralized wartime
powers, would erode America's habits of democracy.

We need to remember him now — remember what our country has forgotten
in its “war on terror”.  Our only hope in this war is spiritual
power.

THE MISSING AMBERSONS

Here's some interesting and possibly hopeful news from Wellesnet,
the invaluable web site resource for all things Orson Welles.  It
seems that Beatrice Welles, Orson Welles' daughter and one of his
heirs, made a legal claim against Turner Entertainment over the rights
to The Magnificent Ambersons and a couple of other films.  Court documents tracked down by Wellesnet reveal that the claims with regard to Ambersons have been settled.  This may explain why Ambersons
has not yet appeared on DVD in the U. S. and may be a sign that it will
be coming soon.  Let's hope.  This is one of the greatest
films not
yet available in the format in this country.  Others are:

Greed
The Big Parade
The Merry Widow
(silent version)
The Wedding March
City Girl
Falstaff (Chimes At Midnight)
Comanche Station

LOST PARADISE


            
              
              
              
              
              
   [Photo © 1960 William Klein]

An excerpt from a 2000 profile of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody in The New Yorker:



During our interview, Godard referred
to the New Wave not only as “liberating” but also as
“conservative.”  On the one hand, he and his friends saw
themselves as a resistance movement against “the occupation of the
cinema by people who had no business there.”  On the other, this
movement had been born in a museum, the Cinémathèque: Godard and his
peers were steeping themselves in a cinematic tradition — that of
silent films — that had disappeared almost everywhere else. 
Thus, from the beginning, Godard saw the cinema as a lost paradise that
had to be reclaimed.



If love of the silent cinema doesn't point the way to new, revolutionary
work — as love of ancient Greek art sparked the innovations of the
Renaissance — then it's just hobbyism.




In other words, silent cinema can be alive as a cultural force, as it
was for the young French cinéastes of the Fifties, just as ancient Greek
art was alive for the artists of the Renaissance.




The parade has not gone by.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

Today
Bill Clinton mused wistfully about how nice it would be to have a
Presidential race in November between two candidates “who love America”
— meaning his wife and John McCain.  It was a statement whose
unspoken but unmistakable premise was that the the third possible
candidate in November, Barack Obama, is someone who doesn't love
America.

Hillary has almost no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, and
therefore almost no chance of becoming President.  Her thinking
seems to be that if she can't have the Presidency, then no Democrat
will.  She's already suggested that only she and McCain are
qualified to be commander in chief.  Now her husband is riffing on
the right-wing radio notion that Obama is not a true, patriotic
American.

The
moral decay of the Clintons has become positively rancid — it's
starting to stink up the whole body politic.  Don't they have any
friends who'll take the keys away from them before they drive their car
over a cliff, dragging the entire Democratic party down with them?


[The lovely portraits above are by the great caricaturist Thomas Fluharty, whose web log Amazed By Grace
says that he's not interested in being the best artist he can be but
only in glorifying God and his son Jesus Christ.  Check it out for
some wicked-amazing art work and some fervent Christian proselytizing -- a
strange combination.  And thanks to the wonderful web site Potrzebie for directing me to Fluharty's work.  Fans of Mad Magazine will understand where Potrzebie is coming from.]

HARRY ON KANE

Below are my nephew Harry's notes for an oral presentation on Citizen Kane for his 9th-grade history class:

February 26, 2008

Citizen Kane

Intro Facts:

-Directed by Orson Wells in 1941.  
-He also starred in , co-wrote and co-produced it
– all at the age of 24
-Previously, had been in radio, creator of the famous War of the Worlds episode for Mercury Theater in N.Y.C.
-Citizen Kane= the first and last major studio film over which he would have total control.
-Considered universally to be one of the greatest films ever created

Some Elements that make this film revolutionary:
 
-use of depth of focus shots (=wide angle lenses to capture the details
of the foreground, middle ground and background without prioritizing)
-depth of focus important because it allows the viewer to actively
investigate the space, make conclusions, see relationships between
characters and their space in more complex ways, spectator is an active
participant in the scene
-use of ceilings and the “fourth wall” = more interesting camera angles, more creative lighting , more real
-camera is inquisitive, as if it is a character itself, instead of a stationary machine that records what’s in front of it
-non-linear storytelling
-narrative told in bits and pieces, out of chronological order
-some scenes are revisited more than once from different perspectives
-story of Kane’s life is revealed as a reporter interviews people who
were closest to Kane in attempt to learn meaning of Kane’s last dying
words
-leads to a richer, more complex portrait of a person

Conclusion:

-On initial release, film was hated by most major film studios. 
-Negative was almost burned
-Wells was persecuted by newspaper tycoon William Randolf Hearst, who
saw unflattering parallels between himself and Charles Foster Kane.
-Wells was blacklisted in Hollywood
-Citizen Kane was never distributed to major commercial theaters
-Sad because this movie defines us – what drives power, materialism, and what we may have lost on the way

After Harry's presentation his teacher said, “We always hear that Citizen Kane is one of the greatest movies ever made — now we know why.”




My notes on the notes:

A superb summary — excellent stylistic and thematic analysis.  I
personally wouldn't call any of the stylistic elements of the film
“revolutionary”, however, since they had all been used before — just rarely
with such brilliance.  It's true that most studio heads hated the
picture, because it offended Hearst and they were afraid of him, but
the Hollywood community recognized its brilliance — it was nominated
for several Academy Awards and won in the category of Best
Screenplay.  The negative was indeed almost burned — Louis B.
Mayer offered to buy it from RKO and destroy it, as a favor to Hearst and to
protect the industry from his wrath.  Welles wasn't exactly
blacklisted in Hollywood — it just became hard for him to work as a
director there after his first two films, and a third which he
produced, tanked at the box office.  Kane
was distributed erratically and never got a chance to prove itself
commercially but it did play at a few major theaters in major cities —
it had its Los Angeles premiere at the El Capitan, which is still
standing.  The El Capitan wasn't the most prestigious house in
town but it was a respectable venue.

Conclusion:

Well done, Harold!

THE SPEECH

It has sometimes been suggested that Barack Obama “transcends race”
— or that he's selling the delusional notion that America has
transcended race.  I
think the truth of it is quite otherwise — that one of the deepest
unspoken appeals of Barack Obama, to all Americans, has been the
sneaking suspicion that one day he was going to speak
about race directly, open up the honest conversation about race which
this country has been too confused and too frightened to have.  It
makes him slightly dangerous but also utterly intriguing.

I always assumed that he would say what he had to say on the subject
after he was elected President, and perhaps he made the same
assumption, but the Reverend Wright controversy made it necessary to
say it sooner rather than later.  So on 18 March, within hailing
distance of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he gave the most
important
speech on race delivered in this country since Martin Luther King's
address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the crowds gathered
for the March On Washington.

At this point I don't think it matters how people respond to Obama's speech
as a bit of political strategy, how it may hurt or hinder his campaign
for the Presidency.  It's a speech that will echo down the
years.  Curiously, for a man who is both praised and condemned for
emotional rhetoric, the speech was most notable for its sober and sobering
analysis of the state of half-conscious or unconscious racial division
in the country.  There were no sweeping appeals to idealism, no
sense that the division could be repaired by lofty slogans, by “dreams”.

He told us where we are — where, on some level, we all know we
are.  He gave us permission to speak about the issue from where we
are.  He brought the talk around the kitchen table into the public
square.  Nothing but good can come of it.

We may draw back from him, as a candidate, decide once again that we're
not ready to have this conversation.  But we won't be able to stop
it now.  William Blake said, “
Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd.”  That's why prophets get
stoned to death — for starting uncomfortable conversations that can't be
stopped.  That's also why we need prophets and cherish them, if only in retrospect.

THE TIME GARDEN

The Los Angeles Times published a book review by my niece Nora, age 10, in their Kids' Reading Room section on 2 March.  (That's Nora in the green shirt, above, screaming on a roller coaster.)

Here's her review . . . of Edward Eager's The Time Garden, with the illustration she did to accompany the review:






The minute I looked at the
title I thought it was just another fairy tale, but boy, was I wrong!
This is a marvelous story. One sniff of the thyme and the magic begins.




Eliza, Ann, Roger and Jack find the Natterjack (a creature in a
frog's form) and run off on an amazing adventure through time and
space. They find out what really happened long ago and save people just
like them. Any boring day can be turned into an astounding journey if
they go into the garden. People of all ages, kid or adult, will want to
be in the magical adventures.

I love Edward Eager's books and have since I was a kid.  His Knight's Castle is one of my favorite books of all time.  I gave Nora her first Edward Eager book last summer, Half Magic, and now she's read them all.  You should, too.

SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD

I recently finished Joseph McBride's excellent (and massive) biography Searching For John Ford. It tells you everything you want to know about the man . . .
except who the hell he was.  The mysteries and contradictions of his
character simply cannot be sorted out.  I'm sure the same would be true
of Shakespeare if we had massive documentation and testimony about his
life.  The depth of the work in each man's case comes out of the
mysteries and contradictions and transcends them but sheds no light backwards on the
man himself.  Perhaps, to be a truly great dramatist, you have to
abandon all hope of a coherent self in real life.

The biggest revelation in the book, to me, was the extent of Ford's
WWII service, which was far greater than I realized — but even in that
arena, nothing he did seemed to satisfy him.  He told outrageous
lies about his wartime service, even when the things he actually did
were far more impressive.  Reading the book makes one more and
more convinced that Ethan Edwards comes as close to a portrait of Ford
the man as we will ever have — a psychotic searcher who does heroic
things that no one else can do, and then wanders off alone, permanently
lost.

It's a sad tale but also, in some mysterious, unaccountable way, inspiring.

T-SHIRTS

I'm a person with too many T-shirts — way
too many T-shirts.  Periodically I make vows not to buy any more
T-shirts, but sometimes you just can't help yourself.  Two years
ago, on a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, I couldn't resist buying a
T-shirt from Graceland, from the Sun Records studio and from the Stax
studio.

Recently I broke down again.  I bought two T-shirts featuring the
work of Fletcher Hanks, the worst comic book artist of all time, and
one featuring the work of Amy Crehore, a terrific painter (the design
is featured above.)

I really don't see how anyone could resist buying these T-shirts, so at the risk of enabling other people with T-shirt acquisition problems
I will add that the Tickler T can be had here and the Hanks Ts
here.  May I also remind you that T-shirt should always be spelled
with a capital T, because only the capital T reflects the shape of the
shirt.  A t-shirt would be some kind of turtleneck T.

FALSTAFF

Orson Welles once said that if any one of his films would qualify him for entry into heaven it would probably be Falstaff (also known as Chimes At Midnight.)  As credentials for salvation go, Falstaff is probably as impeccable as any — it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, so great that it almost seems to inhabit a new medium all its own.

Visually it’s a torrent of dense, lyrical, consistently exhilarating images — an explosion of plastic invention unequaled since the days of silent cinema.  But it’s a talkie, and its words are not just any words — they’re the words of Shakespeare.  It’s not too much to say that Welles’ images, with their musical rhythms of movement within individual shots and from shot to shot, constitute a co-equal element with Shakespeare’s poetry.  Image and word fly, dance, crack, soar and sing together.  There has never been anything quite like it.

The soundtrack has technical flaws, however, which make it hard to appreciate the full scope of Welles’ achievement.  The production was beset with severe financial problems — almost all the dialogue had to be dubbed, and Welles had to supervise the re-recording at a distance.  The line readings are uniformly superb but the sync is not always perfect and the “room tone” surrounding the dubbed voices is inconsistent and often disorienting.

I don’t know if the original sound elements still exist — if they do, modern digital technology could certainly be applied to correct the flaws, though it would probably cost a small fortune.

As things stand, one needs to accept a slight disconnect between image and dialogue — which is no more than saying  that the Parthenon has sustained a bit of damage through the years.  One makes allowances.

The film is not available on DVD in this country.  There is a barely acceptable all-region Brazilian edition in NTSC format which can be had online, but it’s not optimized for a widescreen monitor and the transfer of both sound and picture is mediocre.  Still, if you’ve seen the film on a big screen, the Brazilian DVD can evoke the experience well enough.

I saw Falstaff at the Paris Theater in New York in the summer of my 17th year.  During the battle scene my hair stood on end — I think I probably trembled with excitement.  I know what cinema is, I thought to myself — the secret of it is here, in this film.  It was more a gut feeling than a practical or intellectual insight, but the moment has inspired all my thinking about movies ever since.  A hundred years from now people will still be studying Falstaff in an effort to apprehend the craft and mystery of movies.