Friday, May 21, 2010

Reflections on a Welles Retrospective Part II

Here's the second part of my reflections on AFI's recent retrospective Larger Than Life: The Films of Orson Welles. For part one click here.

7. We're always harder on The Stranger than we should be. Perhaps because it was Welles's one attempt at a big traditional studio thriller, I'm always a little flippant about it. Most Wellesians dismiss it. And Welles himself treated it like an especially unloved child. I must report, though, that when I watched it on the big screen, I enjoyed it from start to finish. And so did the audience I saw it with. Welles was incapable of filming an uninteresting shot, and set pieces like the long, one-take murder in the woods have an undeniable energy. The movie is no one's idea of a masterpiece--least of all the man who made it--but it's fun. Read more about The Stranger here.

8. You can almost feel Welles's heartbeat when you watch Touch of Evil. It was his last stopover in the Hollywood system before permanent exile, and he clearly made the most of the opportunity. Working with a decent budget, big stars and--most importantly perhaps--an experienced crew, he made a jolting, sleazy noir masterpiece. My experience of seeing this film the other night was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. I saw a late showing in AFI's historic Theater One, a huge, beautiful room with a large screen. There were about five patrons there at that hour, just four strangers and me sitting in the dark late one Thursday night watching Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh descend into Welles's nightmare border town. I couldn't have been happier. More more about the film here.

9. The Trial is a dark, impenetrable film. It's an oddity among Welles's films--which is to say it's an oddity among oddities. Adapted from Kafka's book, it tells the story of a man (played by Anthony Perkins) accused of a unknown crime. It's a parable about the arbitrary nature of power and the law, and that makes it something of a sermon. It's the heaviest film Welles ever made, and it may well be his least accessible. It's also a masterpiece, albeit a brooding, difficult one. Watching it on the big screen was a joy--it's a gorgeous film, one that envelops you in a world every bit as bizarre and artificial as Oz. The scene where two men are stripped and whipped in a storeroom is creepy on the small screen, but on the large screen it's terrifying. The whole film becomes scarier on the large screen--and, oddly enough, funnier as well. Bonus: you can make out sexy Romy Schneider's mustache.

10. F For Fake was Welles's last completed film, and it gives a fascinating idea of where the director might have gone with his art if he'd had the money. The film is hard to classify--it's been called both a documentary and an "essay film"--but I regard it as a piece of creative nonfiction. It blends together documentary footage, interviews, dramatic recreations, and almost Expressionistic set-pieces for a meditation on art, forgery, and expertise. Welles starts by looking at the career of the world famous (or world infamous) art forger Elmyr de Hory, the subject of a book called Fake by Clifford Irving, who himself was shortly to become notorious as the author of a bogus biography of Howard Hughes. Welles follows this swirl of events and uses them to ponder several questions about the nature of art: What is the value of authorship? If no one knows the difference between a real masterpiece and a fake masterpiece, then is there a difference? Are critics and experts merely con men pretending to know what art "is" so that they can have a job teaching the rest of us? All good questions, and they make F for Fake an excellent answer to people who accuse Welles of shallowness. This is a profound film.

Of course, it's also a meditation on Oja Kodar's perfectly sculpted ass. Welles's companion and collaborator during the last three decades of his life, Kodar features prominently in this film, mostly as a figure of erotic attention. I bring this up because a) the Oja ass fixation is something that is rarely written about in relation to the film, and b) on the big screen, it is impossible to ignore that this often brilliant film has an entire subplot dedicated to Kodar's ass. Is this simply Welles's overindulging his fixation of Kodar? Is this his way of setting up the last act of the film, the story of Kodar's brief relationship with Picasso? I don't know. I'll have to digest this fact some more before I can form an idea about what it means for the film. Read more about this film--though, sadly, not about Kodar's ass--here.

11. Seeing it on the big screen confirmed what I have long thought: Chimes at Midnight is Welles's best movie. It's the kind of art-house epic he was born to make--intimate in emotion but grand in its ambitions. Unawed by his Shakespearean sources (he fashioned the script from five different plays), unvexed by his limited resources, Welles plunges into the story of Falstaff, that jolly, fat old knight gone to seed on booze, food, girls and good times. He's the "misleader of youth" whose friendship with the callow young Hal, Prince of Wales (Keith Baxter) is a thorn in the side of the King of England (John Gielgud). On the big screen, his gorgeous film unfurls and catches a gust of wind. It's full of huge images: the king's cavernous castle, the battle of Shrewsbury, and Falstaff himself, bloated and jovial.

The centerpiece of the film is the Shrewsbury battle. It's a bravura piece of filmmaking, full of movement and violence and edited for maximum effect. The heart of the film, however, is the tension between the high world of the king's court and the low world of Falstaff's tavern/brothel. This tension was near and dear to Welles, who as an artist was constantly blurring the lines between high and low art, between "literature" and "pulp." While his Falstaff is funny, Welles's genius was to zero in on the tragedy of this supporting character, this instrument of comic relief in Shakespeare's plays, and place him it at the center of a tragedy. As he told Peter Bogdanovich "the closer I got to Falstaff the less funny he seemed to me."

As Falstaff, Welles gave his best performance. If Charles Foster Kane and Harry Lime stand as the great examples of the charisma of the young Welles, then Falstaff stands as the mature culmination of his actor's art. Welles fills the screen here, in more ways than one.

For more on Chimes at Midnight, read this terrific interview with Keith Baxter.


Mark said...

Hi there, I've only just discovered your blog. Looking forward to rummaging through your older posts! Not sure how it evaded me for so long, but better found late than never!

Jake Hinkson said...

Hi, Mark. Glad you found the blog, and thanks for leaving a comment!

Sam said...

Badass. I agree with you on Chimes.