Monday, April 4, 2016
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
PUT MONEY IN THY PURSE BEFORE THOU STARTEST FILMING
I have just been commenting on two biographies of Orson Welles, David Thomson’s iconoclastic Rosebud – The Story of Orson Welles and Clinton Heylin’s hagiographic Despite the System – Orson Welles versus the Hollywood Studios. Writing on them made me do some hard thinking about Welles, and I decided to look at one of his independently-produced films once again, to ensure that my own jaded views on Welles as actor and director were not too harsh.
So I headed for Youtube [bless its helpful little electronic being] and watched once again Orson Welles’ version of Othello.
I must say that my choice of this film was not entirely random. Othello is one of the eight or nine plays by Shakespeare that I know best. 22 years ago, I wrote and had published a detailed essay and study-guide for students on the play, and in the course of doing so I searched out and watched all the available film and television versions – Orson Welles’ version, but also the 1965 “canned theatre” version of the British National Theatre production starring Laurence Olivier in blackface and a young Maggie Smith as Desdemona (her ample breasts visibly still heaving after she was meant to be dead). I had first seen this version when I was a teenager. Then there was a clever-dick 1992 BBC TV production directed by Trevor Nunn, with the black actor Willard White in the title role and Ian McKellan as an underpowered Iago, but with the setting ridiculously switched to the American Civil War. And there was the early 1980s TV version with Anthony Hopkins made up as a Moor rather than as a Blackamoor. I wasn’t able to get hold of the Russian version that was made in the 1950s, but I did my best. I also watched a couple of versions of Verdi’s opera Otello, which remains one of my favourite operas. And after I’d written my study guide, I saw the 1995 film version with Kenneth Branagh reasonably good as Iago, but Laurence Fishburne woefully inadequate as Othello (and the play’s great storm scene missing).
Let’s say that all this, plus a close study of the text, plus going to some good local live theatre productions (one of the best with Samoan actor Nat Lees in the lead) made me acutely aware of both the play’s theatrical potential and of what cinema can make of it.
So, wanting to see if I was being too harsh on Welles, it was back to his Othello that I went.
The story of how the film was made is a major chapter in the Welles legend. For the best part of four years, between 1949 and 1952, Welles scraped together the money to make the film in any way he could. This often meant that he took on acting roles in Hollywood films to raise the money, and basically kept his long-suffering cast waiting for months on end between bursts of shooting. Costumes were sometimes stolen from Hollywood productions. One famous story says that the attempted murder of Cassio in the film was shot in a Turkish bath, with Cassio, Roderigo and Iago in loincloths only, because the production’s costumes were in hock at the time the sequence was scheduled to be shot. Sequences were filmed in Venice, Rome, Tunisia and Morocco, with the famed set designer Alexander Trauner filling out the genuine ancient buildings that were used as sets. Welles adapted, directed and played the lead. His Iago was the Irish actor Micheal MacLiammoir (or, to be pedantically precise, the London-born actor Alfred Willmore who had remade himself as a professional Irishman.) MacLiammoir was so bemused by the whole prolonged and intermittent process of making the film, that he kept a tongue-in-cheek diary on it, which was published under the title Put Money in Thy Purse (I give it shelf space). After all, MacLiammoir was aware that scraping money together was Welles’ chief concern in the years the film was in the making.
For Welles’ admirers, all this is seen as the heroic story of a great auteur persisting against the odds to produce a masterpiece of cinema.
But here is the problem. To judge the worth of a film, you watch the film. You ignore the story of its making. And trying to filter out the legend of how it was made, it was to the film itself (or at least to one of the three – slightly different – cuts of it) that I turned.
And I did not find myself impressed by a cinematic masterpiece. I found myself watching a patchy film with moments of visual brilliance, but many inconsistencies of tone and, in the end, a tendency to swamp dramatic substance in neat visual effects. As a set of posed pictures (they look good when reproduced in books) Welles’ Othello often looks good, but leaves the characters – and especially the title character - thin and unmotivated.
You get everything that is right and everything that is wrong about the film in the opening sequence. It begins with an upside-down shot of the dead Othello’s head. Against heavy, dirge-like music, there is a solemn funeral march for Othello and Desdemona. Pall-bearers and soldiers trudge in silhouette, in heroic low-angle shots, against a sky with dramatic clouds. Welles is apparently trying to copy the type of posed picturesqueness Eisenstein did in his Ivan the Terrible films. And while this dialogue-less scene is going on, Iago, who has engineered the deaths of Othello and Desdemona, is being locked in a cage, which is hauled up by chains on the city walls. Here, presumably, he will stay in the public gaze until such time as he is executed. So Iago looks down cynically upon the two people whose lives he has destroyed. (The cage in which he is trapped appears in other sequences in the film, becoming a symbol of how Othello himself is trapped and reminding us where the tragedy is heading.)
This sequence – which precedes the credits - is visually impressive, but it is also very long and it presents a number of problems. In the first place, it is virtually meaningless unless you are already acquainted with the play and know who these characters are and what their relationship is. As exposition it is useless, which is why, after the credits in one cut of this film, Welles has to resort to a clumsy voice-over commentary to tell us who is who. From the word go, Welles thus banks on an audience’s prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s play and much of his film becomes, in effect, a visual commentary upon the play rather than a true dramatization. In the second place, the sheer length of the opening sequence warns you that in this film, dialogue will be sacrificed to the visual effect.
Cineastes will at once remind me of what I already know – that a film is not a stage play; that film is essentially a visual medium; and that film should always show before it tells. From both Welles’ Macbeth and his Chimes at Midnight (his compression of the Henry IV plays), I already knew that his filmed Shakespeare would have dialogue severely chopped up and rearranged into a different order. This is not a scene-for-scene filming of the play, and fair enough. But the cutting of text in this Othello is taken to extremes, robbing major characters of their inwardness and psychological depth. Yes, as static visual display we admire many shots of characters posing on wind-blown battlements. Yes, we admire the way Welles arranges shots of crashing seas to suggest the storm as characters arrive in Cyprus (the opening of Act Two in Shakespeare’s play). Yes, Welles is very ingenious in solving the problem of credibly getting Cassio drunk enough to disgrace himself. Welles uses music and cutting to turn the drunken revels into a series of small episodes, so that the audience can infer that a whole night is passing rather than the few minutes that the scene takes to perform on stage. This is very good film-making. But so often the settings and costumes – the mise-en-scene – overwhelm and swamp the characters.
Why, I wonder, did Welles extend the brawling on the night of Cassio’s disgrace into a splashing-about in what looks like a Cypriot town sewer? Was it because he had learnt that sewers could look dramatic, after having recently appeared in The Third Man? Or was it because the big space looked impressive in itself and so – coherent drama be hanged – he was going to use it? This impulse is at one with the sequences, towards the end of the film, in which Othello comes to Desdemona intent on murder, but – before they head for Desdemona’s deathbed – the two of them have to shout their dialogue to each other across vast spaces of empty set, and the intimate intensity of the drama is lost.
When dialogue is wedded to appropriate visuals, the effect is stimulating. I judge the film’s very best sequence to be that in which Iago for the first time plants his poison in Othello’s mind. In an impressively long and sustained tracking shot, Iago and Othello walk along the battlements and we hear all that they have to say to each other. Cinematic technique for once does what it should do in an adaptation, and enhances the effect of the dialogue.
Quite apart from the deadening dominance of visual spectacle, there is the variability of image and sound recording (particularly fuzzy in the scenes between Iago and Roderigo). Much of this, I am sure, has to do with the conditions in which the film was made, the intermittent shooting schedule, the type of film-stock that Welles could scrape together and so forth. Be that as it may, it makes for a film that does not flow smoothly and had scant dramatic momentum.
The acting is at best variable. Suzanne Cloutier (Desdemona) is a wind-up doll – her dialogue dubbed by another actress. Fay Compton, as Emilia, gets one good sequence of dialogue with Desdemona towards the end, but most of her role elsewhere in the story has been ditched. The same goes for Robert Coote, well-cast as the gullible Roderigo but deprived of much that he could say.
And the leads? A big problem. In terms of the number of lines he speaks in Shakespeare’s play, Iago is a larger role than Othello, so I cannot reasonably complain that Micheal MacLiammoir dominates the film – except that in this instance he so dominates it that Othello himself becomes a cipher. Too often Welles places himself with his back to the camera when he speaks his dialogue – and too often that dialogue is incoherently trimmed. As interpreted by this film, Othello is a manipulated puppet – not a tragic hero.
I have given a heady list of complaints here, and I am aware that for Welles-ophiles I have uttered blasphemy. Many learned articles tell me about Welles’ Othello is a great vindication of the auteur theory – an imposition of a particular imaginative vision upon an existing drama. There is also the fact that the film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
I am therefore pleased to see that even among Welles’ admirers, there are those who know what is badly wrong with this film. “Welles’s heroism in completing the film makes criticism of the result seem almost churlish, but the fact remains that Othello as a story stubbornly resists Welles’s moral framework, and his style, never more floridly expressionistic, is particularly unsuited for a character conflict which depends so much on careful, logical, introspective development.” So says Joseph McBride in his 1972 study Orson Welles, and he goes on to describe the film as “fascinating as spectacle and alienating as drama”. Quite. French critic Andre Bazin praised the film highly in a 1952 review, but did note that “Welles’s editing… seems extremely fragmented, shattered like a mirror relentlessly struck with a hammer. Carried to such a degree, this stylistic idiosyncrasy becomes a tiresome device.” He also noted that Welles’s performance “lapses into exhibitionism.” Again, quite.
What I am left with is the impression that this could have been a great film if more tightly-controlled, more disciplined, and given a coherent shooting schedule. Yes, Welles’ persistence is getting it done may have been heroic, but the result is a series of improvisations, like so much of Welles’ later work (that Turkish bath business). There is evidence of a great talent, but it has produced a bitty and incoherent film. And that remains the verdict on nearly all of Welles’ post-Hollywood film career when one judges the films themselves, as opposed to the legends about their making.
If he had had all the money he needed in his purse in the first instance, Othello might have been a good film.
Sensible Footnote: One very obvious point – it would now be impossible to make a version of Othello like Welles’ because public taste has turned so much against the concept of white actors donning blackface to play Africans. There is now that agitation against so-called “whitewashing”, that is, white actors playing any ethnicity other than their own. One way to circumvent this is to point out that Othello is a Moor – a North African and not a sub-Saharan Negro (or “Blackamoor”, as Elizabethans would have said.) This was the solution found in the TV adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins as Othello. But nowadays, even this might be found objectionable.
Snarky Footnote: Micheal MacLiammoir notes that Orson Welles instructed him to play Iago as if Iago’s problem was impotence. He is jealous of Othello’s sexual potency and therefore cuts him down to size by destroying him. I wonder if, in giving this instruction, Welles wasn’t implying something else? Obviously, having worked at Dublin’s Gate Theatre when he was younger, and having made a film in Ireland with MacLiammoir, Welles was fully aware that MacLiammoir was homosexual (his partner and fellow-director of the Gate Theatre, Hilton Edwards, plays the role of Brabantio in Welles’ Othello). In making Iago’s motivation sexual, was Welles in fact suggesting that this was the tale of a repressed gay man jealous of an heroic heterosexual man with a happy marriage? Just a thought.