Tuesday, May 7, 2019
FILMING OTHELLO (1978)
I think FILMING OTHELLO might be the greatest Orson Welles movie. Now, by that, I don't mean that it's the greatest movie made by Orson Welles. I mean that although the film purports to be about the making of Welles's 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare's OTHELLO, its true subject is Welles himself. It is a fascinating document of the man.
The film is one of the director's "essays," the most well known of which is the late masterpiece F IS FOR FAKE (1973), a meditation on art and authenticity. That film pursues a complex theme and arrives at a thesis (what one might call an anti-auteur theory of art). FILMING OTHELLO by contrast not only doesn't arrive at any conclusions, it doesn't really pursue a theme. (Welles himself acknowledges this late in the film, essentially saying that he didn't know where to focus.) We get some making-of stories told in the great raconteur style by Welles, some re-edited footage of OTHELLO itself (without the sound!), excerpts of a dinner conversation with two of his costars in the film (as well as his old mentors) Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir, footage from a Q&A with college students, and a couple of scenes of Welles sitting at his editing machine quoting speeches from the play.
Curiously, as a document about the filming of OTHELLO, FILMING OTHELLO is light on details and pointedly subjective in its perspective. It's a bit all over the place, not unlike OTHELLO itself. One can assume that this was intentional while also noting that it doesn't quite work. The scenes of Welles sitting and talking to the camera are entertaining, but they meander. Welles doesn't really articulate a reason for FILMING OTHELLO to exist. Why discuss this film, as opposed to any of his other films? More telling still is the odd fact that Welles--a lifelong student of Shakespeare and one of the bard's greatest 20th Century interpreters--doesn't really articulate a theory of the greatness of OTHELLO itself. Sure he sings the praises of the play, but he offers few insights into how and why it's great.
The dinner with Edwards and Mac Liammoir is more entertaining than insightful (I would gladly watch hours of Micheal Mac Liammoir talking about anything...and for that matter I'd watch hours of him just listening to someone else talk, his eyes expanding like a peacock spreading his feathers every time someone says something he finds absurd). Though it must be said that the dinner scene does inadvertently offer one real insight because it displays just how binary Welles and his companions could be in their thinking about things like race and, especially, gender. Noting this about the film isn't a criticism of the film. This is a documentary, after all, and it documents three aging men (Welles, about 60 at the time, was the youngest) in the mid-1970s casually beginning their sentences with things like "A woman would never..."
The dinner scene is also rather distracting because Welles has inserted new shots of himself asking questions and responding to comments from the other two men. I feel certain that some scholar out there has probably advanced the theory that this disjointed doesn't-quite-fit quality is some kind of meta-commentary by Welles on the disjointed making of OTHELLO itself. While I doubt that, and while it feels exactly like the kind of theory that Welles himself would mock, we should say that if Welles wanted the pieces of the dinner scene to fit together awkwardly then he succeeded to no apparent end.
The sequence with Welles talking to students is likewise entertaining, though it's probably worth noting how quickly the conversation moves on to something else (the making of MACBETH) without connecting back to the subject at hand. When one considers that this film is 84 minutes long and that the project came about when Welles was asked to record an introduction to OTHELLO for German television, FILMING OTHELLO takes on the hue of something that was fleshed out from a sketch and never found its proper form as a film. If you've read many interviews with Welles, this probably isn't surprising. As he made clear many times, he really didn't like talking about his work. As a result, FILMING OTHELLO ultimately doesn't have much to say about it either.
I realize that much of what I've written so far has been critical of the film, which is odd considering that I said it might be the greatest Orson Welles film. But here's what I meant by that: because it lacks a true thesis about OTHELLO, this film keeps falling back on Welles himself as its defacto subject. The opening monologue of the film--with the director introducing the proceedings, singing Shakespeare's praises, claiming modesty in the shadow of that Great Man, and telling a couple of background stories--is vintage Orson Welles. Charming and witty, erudite and playful, it's Welles as showman, inviting us into the tent to see how the magic is made. These scenes (shot by Welles's longtime cinematographer Gary Graver in the mid seventies) capture a late-career Orson Welles in all his diminished glory and undiminished power.
Toward the end, Welles delivers a couple of passages from OTHELLO while sitting at his editing machine. Again, there's no theory here. He doesn't deliver these speeches to illustrate a particular point about the character of Othello or the play or even his film (and since the scenes from the earlier film are shown without sound, these speeches are the only Shakespearean language that we get in the film). He just rather randomly starts reciting some lines. So why are they here? I think they're here because Welles wanted to record himself saying them. He's showing off. And he's great! It's impossible not to see the almost childlike joy the actor takes in sinking his teeth into that language. But the language itself isn't the point. Neither is Shakespeare. No, the point is Welles himself and the joy he takes in being an actor and filmmaker and raconteur. This would be the final film he would release in his lifetime, so it's fitting that it ends with him sitting at his editing machine in the dark, puffing on a cigar.
As an essay about the movie OTHELLO, FILMING OTHELLO is intermittently interesting. As a unintentional portrait of Orson Welles at the end of his career, it's fascinating.