Saturday, June 25, 2022
Friday, May 6, 2022
above: Welles directing MOBY DICK - REHEARSED in 1955.
If you divide the career of Orson Welles into three periods--Early, Middle, and Late--then you will find his most prolific work in theater in the Early period. That was the period of rapidly successive experiments and triumphs--the time of the Dublin Theater, the "Voodoo MACBETH," the Mercury Theater, JULUIS CESEAR, and NATIVE SON. A heady time, to be sure.
But even in his Middle period, when he'd left America and was making his way as an independent filmmaker in Europe and Africa, he did not abandon the theater. (As he would, alas, in his Late period. Although he lived until 1985, he stopped working in the theater in 1960.) In some ways, his most significant production during this time was CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, by all accounts a failure as a play but one that functioned as a trial run for his triumphant 1965 film FALSTAFF, perhaps the single greatest work of his career.
Having said that, however, Welles' most lasting contribution to the theater during his Middle period was certainly his Melville adaptation MOBY DICK - REHEARSED. It was the highpoint of his career as a playwright and another piece of evidence that he may well have been the supreme literary 'adaptor' of the 20th century. (Other evidence would include his adaptations--on radio, stage, and screen--of HG Wells, Richard Wright, Booth Tarkington, Kafka, Isak Dinesen, and, of course, Shakespeare.) It also brings his experiments in self-conscious meta-artmaking to something of a boil, which would pay off in later works of extreme self-consciousness like his essay film F FOR FAKE and his unfinished THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.
MOBY DICK - REHEARSED is a play in two acts. The setting is the backstage of a small theater. In Act I, we're introduced to an acting troupe getting together to rehearse a production of KING LEAR. Petty complaints and light teasing are exchanged, lines are run, a little time is killed. Then the troupe's Actor-Manager arrives and announces that they will be rehearsing a new play, an adaptation of Melville's novel MOBY DICK. The gang grumbles a little more but soon enough everyone snaps to, and the story of Ishmael, Starbuck, Captain Ahab and the great white whale begins to take shape. As it does, the story begins to take over. By Act II, we are fully in MOBY DICK, the story having subsumed the actors. Only at the very end, with Ahab and his mortal enemy confined to the watery deep, do the actors at last shrug off their roles and return to themselves. Then the curtain falls.
When Welles produced MOBY DICK - REHEARSED in June of 1955 at the Duke of York's Theater in London it garnered largely rave reviews, but it didn't draw a huge audience. (Welles, always a popular celebrity, was never a strong box office draw.) In the years since, the play has rolled on, taking on a life of its own in numerous productions (the most famous of which was the 1962 production starring Rod Steiger as the Actor-Manager/Ahab). The director of one such production in North Carolina, Robb Mann, told me that his actors played the early scenes as comedy and "then as the play progressed rolled it into drama, going from realism to hyper-realism." That strikes me as the natural progression of Welles' play, which develops from a half-hearted rehearsal to a deep immersion--with the actors playing actors who are at first playing characters until the characters finally become people who fully take over.
The adaptation itself is brilliant. With a nod to Shakespeare, Welles converts Melville's prose into blank verse. He takes the author's sprawling novel--itself a roiling compendium of styles (part philosophical meditation, part gothic comedy, part boy's adventure tale, part cetology textbook)--and pars it down to its fierce beating heart: Ahab's obsessive hunt for the whale. The crew's growing unease with their captain's obsession becomes the focal point of the play, with Starbuck's caution crashing against Ahab's mania like the waves beating the sides of the ship.
But, of course, there are no waves. There is no ship. Adapting a story like MOBY DICK to the stage is a fool's errand because you can't put the ocean or a whale inside a theater, and faking it would just look goofy. MOBY DICK works best as a novel because it works best in the theater of the mind, with Melville's incantatory prose casting its spell even when he's lecturing you about whale blubber.
Welles grasped this blunt reality and worked with it. At the start of the play, the Actor-Manager, who will transform into Ahab as the rehearsal progresses, explains to his actors that the production will involve the audience as cocreators in the evening's production. It's up to the audience to supply the ocean and the whale. This kind of stripped down theater is (to use a phrase the theater director Jerzy Grotowski would coin years later) pure "Poor Theater." It embraces economic constraints as an engine of creativity. It shows incredible faith in the audience. It also finds Welles working in direct opposition to the Brechtian notions of epic theater that characterized his Early period mega productions like FIVE KINGS (1939) and AROUND THE WORLD (1946). Both of those plays had been flops artistically and commercially, but with MOBY DICK - REHEARSED, Welles found the perfect vehicle for his particular brand of epic classical theater.
This last point is worth pondering a moment longer. As both a filmmaker and a theater producer, Orson Welles would have had a far easier time of things if he'd been interested in crafting small stories or intimate character studies. But, then again, he wouldn't have been Orson Welles, would he? He was interested in outsized personalities taking center stage on the largest possible canvas. And that never changed. FALSTAFF is as big as any movie he ever made, and he made it for a pittance.
Likewise, MOBY DICK - REHEARSED may be Poor Theater, but it's epic Poor Theater, a heedless adaptation of an unadaptable novel. It's Welles acknowledging, more than ever before, the importance of the audience as cocreators of a live performance, even for a text as iconic as Melville's book.
Friday, April 1, 2022
The other day in the film aesthetics class I teach, we watched THE WIZARD OF OZ. Everyone in class had seen it, but no one had seen it since they were children. The viewing made for a fascinating experience.
For one thing, the movie doesn't just hold up well, it possibly holds up better than any movie ever made. If that seems like an outsized claim, consider the following:
1. What other film from the 1930s would a room full of teenagers in 2022 already have seen? (I recently learned that in this same class, about a third of them had never seen the original STAR WARS.) They'd all seen OZ, and they'd all seen it around the same age, between 5-10 years old.
2. Because it's a kids movie, it doesn't really age. The reason that most movies from the 1930s or 40s have trouble connecting with modern audiences is they're time capsules of old attitudes and styles. (I've found some of my students to be resistant to the pre-Method style of movie acting, as well as black and white cinematography.) THE WIZARD OF OZ, though, was created to be a live action cartoon, a storybook come to life. It's artificial from start to finish, with a mythic context. The acting, music, dancing, art direction--it's all integrated and pitched at the same level of unreality. This separates it, even from most kids movies of its time, which tried to at least wink at the parents or teens in the audience. Not OZ. It knows who it's for: kids. The irony is that, because we were all kids--because we wanted to run away from home at some point, and then wanted to return, and because we were scared of adults, and loved our pets, and because we felt misunderstood--it's for all of us.
3. Look, I'm a Judy Garland obsessive, so of course I'm going to say it's all because of Judy, but it's impossible to imagine anyone else doing what she does in this film. She's a teenager playing a little girl (which, like everything else, adds to the movie's air of otherworldly weirdness). She's plucky without being annoying, scared of evil witches and flying monkeys but always able to rise up and defend herself and her friends. And, of course, she's the greatest musical comedy performer in movie history. That helps, too.
MGM originally wanted Shirley Temple as Dorothy, but Temple, though talented and adorable, was an actual child and would have grounded the movie in a reality at odds with its aesthetic. And while she could sing, she sang, well, like a kid. She would have been, in a word, cute. Judy isn't cute in OZ, she's touching, and that's the difference.
4. That brings us to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Famously, the scene of Judy singing her signature song was almost cut for fear that the Kansas opening was too long. But it is, of course, the heart of the movie. The song, melodic and simple, and imbues the movie with a strange sense of melancholy. The more you know of Judy's life, of course, the more meaning the song has.
5. The level of craftsmanship here is exemplary across the board. The makeup and costumes of the Wicked Witch, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are still impeccable. The Technicolor still pops. The sets by Cedric Gibbons still enchant. It's all great.
I'm tempted to say that THE WIZARD OF OZ is a perfect movie, but I can't because I hate the Lion's song "If I Were King of the Forest." It slows us down right when we want to get to the Wizard himself, and the song itself is a dud, a three-minute slog through Bert Lahr's mugging.
That one quibble aside, though, OZ really is pretty close to a perfect creation. It shows the studio system operating at its zenith, all the parts working in concert to create a masterpiece, one of the true works of cinematic art.
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
If Orson Welles had never made a single film or spoke a single word over the radio, he'd still be a legend: a legend of the theater. His accomplishments in this realm are as fascinating as anything he did elsewhere. There have been books written about his theater work, most notably Richard France's THE THEATER OF ORSON WELLES, which covers Welles's theatrical activity from 1931 to 1940, but I really hope someone somewhere is laboring on a magisterial deep dive into his entire career in theater. Although he shifted his focus to filmmaking in 1940, he dipped in and out of the theater for years, and his work, from start to finish, makes for absorbing reading.
Here are some highlights of his theater work:
1. Childhood productions: Welles made his first brief appearance on stage in a Chicago Opera production of MADAME BUTTERFLY when he was about 3 years old, and in some respects he never looked back. At ten years old he adapted and played the title roles in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE for a state park production in Wisconsin, followed by a turn as Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. After his mother's death, he was sent to Todd's School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where he more or less took over the theater department. He adapted, directed and acted in productions of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, as well as performing in some musical theater composed by his friend and headmaster, Roger Hill.
2. Dublin: After graduating from high school at 16 (shortly after his father's death), Welles skipped college and headed to Ireland instead where he talked his way into the Gate Theater run by Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir. There his professional career began with a role in JEW SUSS, an adaptation of a Lion Feuchtwanger novel by playwright Ashley Dukes. Welles did more work at the Gate (including a turn as The Ghost in a legendary production of HAMLET), but he also branched out to take roles at other theater companies (like the Abbey Theater and the Peacock) and mount some productions of his own around Dublin, including productions of Lewis Carroll, Ibsen, Chekov, Eugene O'Neill, P.G. Wodehouse, and, of course, some more Shakespeare.
3. New York: After returning to America and mounting some productions at his alma mater (a period which I'll skip here, but which is fascinating all on its own), Welles headed to New York to try to sell some plays he'd written. Success as a playwright never came but he landed roles as an actor, first as Tybalt in ROMEO AND JULIET for Katharine Cornell's rep company, and then a breakout role in playwright Archibald MacLeish's PANIC. The play only ran a few performances but it got Welles noticed, not least of all by producer John Houseman, who recognized the young man's talent and ambition.
4. The Federal Theater Project: The first project Welles and Houseman launched was the all-Black cast "Voodoo MACBETH" set in Haiti. The production was a landmark success, and the crown jewel in the Federal Theater Project run by Hallie Flanagan (a part of the New Deal's WPA). Welles followed it with an adaptation of a French farce which he titled HORSE EATS HAT, a smash hit comedy which he regarded as some of his best work as a writer and director. Then he issued a dramatic turn as the title character in DOCTOR FAUSTUS, another success that also lifted his profile as an actor as well as a director. Welles and Houseman had a falling out with the WPA over their next production, the radical agitprop musical THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. When they were barred from the theater (locked out with an actual chain fastened to the doors), Welles, Houseman and their actors led the audience twenty blocks up Manhattan to another theater. Forbidden by labor laws to take the stage, they sat in the audience and performed the musical from their seats while the composer Mark Blitzstein played piano, an act of defiance that became the stuff of legend.
5. The Mercury Theater: With their association with the FTP at an end, Welles and Houseman started their own theater, The Mercury. Their first play, which Welles adapted, directed and starred in, was the anti-fascist CAESAR, a resounding commercial and critical success that might well be the most important production of Shakespeare ever done on the American stage. Stylistically daring, emotionally resonant, and unapologetically political, it would influence countless Shakespeare adaptations to come. Orson Welles was barely 23 years old.
The Mercury followed CAESAR with another comedy in the mold of HORSE EATS HAT, this time a racy production of Thomas Dekker's THE SHOEMAKER'S HOLIDAY. The show was a smash hit, but it would also be the highwater mark for the theater. The troubled productions that followed--Shaw's HEARTBREAK HOUSE, TOO MUCH JOHNSON (for which Welles shot some footage intended to be shown within the context of the play) and the German drama DANTON'S DEATH, failed to catch on with audiences or critics.
Two important productions remained, however. Welles directed Richard Wright's adaptation of his own novel NATIVE SON for Broadway, a landmark of African American theater. The play was a critical and commercial success, and, along with his other left leaning works, would contribute to the FBI labeling Welles a Communist in later years. His other important production was FIVE KINGS, Welles's first attempt to do the story of Shakespeare's Falstaff, a story culled from several different plays featuring the character. The production was not a success, but it laid the groundwork for a masterpiece to come.
Welles and Houseman split up after NATIVE SON and went their separate ways, and spent the rest of their lives shitting on each other in interviews. Still, Welles kept the Mercury going (mostly in name) for a few more years, but he really needed a producer to watch the bottom line. What drove the nail into the Mercury Theater's coffin was the epic disaster of Welles's 1946 AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, which featured music by Cole Porter and boasted enormous, costly sets. The production bombed with audiences and was savaged by critics. It also rendered Welles all but unemployable in New York theater.
6. Europe: By the 1950s, Welles was concentrating primarily on independent moviemaking, but he kept working in theater off and on over the next ten years. He did OTHELLO in New Castle and London as prep for making a movie of the play (he'd done the same thing on stage in Utah in 1947 while working on his film version of MACBETH), he did a one-man show AN EVENING WITH ORSON WELLES in Germany, and in Paris he directed THE LADY IN THE ICE, a ballet, for which he wrote the libretto.
After a brief disappointing return to New York for short lived production of KING LEAR, he produced one of the most fascinating works in his oeuvre, MOBY DICK REHEARSED a meta play he wrote, directed, and starred in at the Duke of York's Theater in London in 1955. With minimal sets and props, the play begins with actors hanging out, talking, joking, complaining, and then gradually morphs into a rehearsal of a play of Melville's story, before morphing into the the story of Ahab and the White Whale itself.
In 1960, Welles mounted a production of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT in Dublin with his old Gate Theater pal Hilton Edwards producing. The play was the next evolution of Welles's Falstaff project, which he'd tried with FIVE KINGS back at the Mercury, and which he'd been working on, in some form or fashion, since he was a boy in Woodstock, Illinois. The play helped him clarify his ideas for the story and it also helped him find the final piece of the puzzle, the actor of would play Prince Hal to Welles's Falstaff, Keith Baxter. Five years later, Welles and Baxter brought the play to the screen with the movie FALSTAFF, which many Welles fanatics, including your humble correspondent, consider his finest film.
Welles could have hung it up after CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, but he directed a final play, 1960's surrealist headscratcher RHINOCEROS, starring Laurence Olivier. Welles and Olivier clashed during rehearsals, and enough drama ensued that one of the cast members, Austin Pendleton, later wrote a play called ORSON'S SHADOW about the chaotic production.
Happily, though, RHINOCEROS was a hit with both audiences and critics, and it sent Welles's career in theater out on a high note. Though he lived another 25 years, and though there were still cinematic masterpieces like FALSTAFF and F FOR FAKE still to come, he never worked in the theater again.
But, god, what a run. From his childhood, well into his his middle years, Orson Welles was one of the theater's great interpreters and innovators. I hope someone out there will give us the book that this part of his career deserves.
Sunday, February 20, 2022
Last month, on January 6th, Peter Bogdanovich passed away. He was 82 years old, which is a nice long run, but it still seems like he was taken too soon. If you listen to almost any interview he gave over the last couple of years you'll hear him talk about the movies he still wanted to make, particularly a ghost story he wanted to film about a movie director haunted by his lost loves.
One doesn't have to dig too deeply into that plot to find the spirit of Bogdanovich himself. He was among the most personal of filmmakers, not because his life details are reflected in most of the stories he filmed (his most famous film, for example, was about growing up in Texas, an experience far removed from the life experience of a New York kid like Bogdanovich). No, his movies were personal because of his experience of making them. Like his hero and sometimes-friend Orson Welles, Bogdanovich put his passion for filmmaking onscreen. The filmmakers who most revere Bogdanovich himself--Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach--all resemble him in this respect: the passion for the medium is the de facto subject of their work.
With Bogdanovich, of course, this stretched into his other job, that of film historian, writer, and critic. He didn't like being called a critic, and it's true that he only very occasionally functioned as one. He preferred the term "popularizer" which does seem more fitting. He rarely wrote, or even spoke on the record, about films or filmmakers he didn't like. He had a wealth of knowledge about old Hollywood, but his knowledge was idiosyncratic. He knew many of his favorite directors--Ford, Hawks, Renoir, Hitchcock, Ulmer--so he had opinions and stories about them to spare. But what about someone like Billy Wilder? Indisputably one of the great directors, Wilder and Bogdanovich had some bad blood back in the 70s, so there's barely a mention of him in any of the volumes of work Bogdanovich published on classic Hollywood. Likewise, Bogdanovich always had to be forced to say anything at all about any of his contemporaries (even ones like Francis Ford Coppola or William Friedkin with whom he had a short-lived production company). He wrote about what (and who) he liked, and pretty much ignored the rest. It was always personal with Peter Bogdanovich.
Likewise, his focus (obsession really) on directors and stars pretty much eclipsed his interest in any other area of filmmaking. Writers, cinematographers, art directors, producers (especially producers) get short shrift in his books and articles, and rarely got much mention when he was discussing his own films. The "Invisible Woman" season of the podcast YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS focusing on Bogdanovich's ex wife-and-collaborator Polly Platt is a nice corrective to the director-centric view of filmmaking that defined Bogdanovich's film histories and his interviews about his own films.
Having said all that, Bogdanovich was an auteur's auteur. The interviews he did with Welles in the book THIS IS ORSON WELLES is a primary text for any appreciation for Welles, and his interviews with classic directors in his book WHO THE HELL MADE IT? is invaluable. (One example, he conducted what might very well be the only surviving interview with DETOUR director Edgar G. Ulmer.) As a filmmaker, he was frequently brilliant, and always himself. His movies are stamped with his wit, his humanity, his passion for film, and his sensitivity to both love and the loss of love.
I hope the next year or so will bring retrospectives of his work. We need PAPER MOON, WHAT'S UP DOC?, SAINT JACK, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, and THEY ALL LAUGHED back in theaters. I'd love the chance to see something like AT LONG LAST LOVE on the big screen, and I've always had a warm place for his expertly wrought version of NOISES OFF. Bring it all back, you art house cinemas, and let us sit in the dark and enjoy the work of one of the greats.
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
A running list of what I've seen on the big screen this year:
1. Nightmare Alley (2021)- Landmark Century Cinema
2. In Cold Blood (1967)- Music Box Theater
3. The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)- Music Box Theater
4. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)- Pickwick Theater
5. The Apartment (1960)- Music Box Theater
6. Scream (2022)- Logan Theater
7. The Scary of Sixty-First (2021)- Music Box Theater
8. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)- Doc Films
9. The Conversation (1974)- Music Box Theater
10. Hud (1963)- Music Box Theater
11. Out of the Blue (1980)- Music Box Theater
12. Sundown (2022)- Gene Siskel Film Center
13. Strawberry Mansion (2022)- Music Box Theater
14. The Batman (2022)- Regal City North
15. Air Mail (1932)- North Eastern Illinois University (CFS)
16. The Sting (1973)- Pickwick Theater
17. X (2022)- Logan Theater
18. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)- Landmark Century Cinema
19. Bigger Than Life (1956)-Music Box Theater (CFS)
20. Mask (1985)- Music Box Theater
21. Desire and Hell at the Sunset Motel (1991)-Music Box Theater
22. Lost Highway (1997)-Music Box Theater
23. The Outfit (2022)-The Quad Cinema (New York)
24. The Lady From Shanghai (1947)- Music Box Theater
25. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)- Music Box Theater
26. The African Queen (1951)- Pickwick Theater
27. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)- Music Box Theater
28. The Northman (2022)- Logan Theater
29. 28 Days Later (2002)-Music Box
30. Pontypool (2008)- Music Box
31. Unforgiven (1992)- Music Box
32. Inland Empire (2006)- Music Box
33. Marcel the Shell with Shoes on (2022)- Music Box
34. Doc (1971)- Music Box
35. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)- Regal City North
36. Light Sleeper (1992)- Doc Films
37. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)- Logan Theater
38. Crimes of the Future (2022)- Music Box
39. Sudden Fear (1952)- Northeastern Illinois University (CFS)