For the past two weeks, I've been on the road in France for the Gallmeister release of my novel AU NOM DU BIEN (DRY COUNTY). We were at the Goeland Masque festival in Penmarc'h, the paperback festival Saint-Maur en Poche, and we've done bookstore events in Vaucresson, Orleans, Bayeux, Rambouillet. I'm exhausted but happy. Now I've got a few days off, and we'll wrap up the tour in Festival International du Roman Noir in Frontignan June 28-30.
It's been a blast so far. Great crowds and a lot of enthusiasm for the new book. Mercu beaucoup to everyone who's come out to see me.
Tuesday, May 7, 2019
I think FILMING OTHELLO might be the greatest Orson Welles movie. Now, by that, I don't mean that it's the best 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.
Sunday, April 28, 2019
The Cinema 150 was the biggest movie theater in Arkansas, a massive domed building with a single screen that was curved at a 150 degree angle. It was built in the late sixties and hosted the world premiere of John Wayne's Oscar-winning Western TRUE GRIT. I was born in Little Rock in 1975, and the first film I saw at the 150 was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980. I screamed when they froze Han Solo, and my mother had to carry me out of the theater to hastily explain the Empire's cryogenic technology. This theater, this domed fantasy land with its gigantic portal into other worlds and other lives, still haunts my dreams. It was the high church of my cinematic obsession.
Sadly, tragically, it's gone now. It had a long slow death that went hand-in-hand with the economic decline of that particular corner of Little Rock, the corner of Asher and University. I used to know that corner like I knew my own body. I went to school nearby at the University of Little Rock, and I regularly went to the movies at the 150. When we were kids, my father took my older brother and I to see THE DEAD POOL, the last Dirty Harry film, there. I saw Star Wars movies and Star Trek movies and Mel Gibson action vehicles and even the odd art film there (when I saw THE THIN RED LINE I was virtually alone in the empty theater). When I got old enough, I went on dates there, holding hands and falling in love.
Oddly, my most profound memory of the 150 is when I went to see David Fincher's THE GAME by myself on a warm summer day in 1997. I've largely forgotten the film, though I know I liked it at the time. What I remember so clearly about that day was the theater itself, the air conditioning and the darkness, the dome high overhead, the whispers of the handful of other people sitting around me waiting for the movie to begin. In those days, there were no pre-show commercials, no loud Coke ads or pitches for lame-looking television shows. There were just people sitting quietly in the dark, waiting for the show to begin.
Here's a link to a beautiful piece about the destruction of the 150 by the writer Kat Robertson. Her details (like the Wendy's next door with the newspaper tabletops) are vivid reminders for me and trigger one of my favorite memories of the 150. My best friend once snuck a Wendy's mesquite cheeseburger into a showing of STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, and when he unwrapped the burger in the dark and its rich aroma filled the theater, the whole crowd laughed.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Chicago's Music Box Theater kicked off a new series today, I Wouldn't Stop Loving You: The Films of Bogie & Bacall, with a showing of the pair's first film, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. As it happens, a sudden snow storm pounded Chicago this morning, but it didn't stop a large and enthusiastic crowd from showing up to this first screening. It was a joyous experience, with the crowd laughing and applauding the movie, a recognition that few films have held up better than this one, one of cinema's true masterpieces. In coming weeks, the Music Box will show THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE, and KEY LARGO. It's a short but impressive list. Of those films, I'd rank two A+ (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP), one A- (DARK PASSAGE), and one B+ (KEY LARGO). Some might quibble with here or there with my rankings, but I'm unlikely to encounter much resistance to the idea that these four films comprise one of the greatest of all movie star pairings.
I wrote about each of these four films back in 2014, after the death of Lauren Bacall. I'll link to my piece on TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, a movie I've loved since I was a teenager, and that I treasure more every time I see it.
Wednesday, April 3, 2019
The other day, I bought the Criterion Collection's new Blu-Ray of DETOUR. It's a divine object. Beautiful packaged, it is a glorious restoration (the same 4k restoration I saw last year in theaters) supported by a bounty of enticing extras--a documentary on director Edgar G. Ulmer, an interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, an insightful essay by the critic and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito, and more.
One aspect of this package that I find interesting, however, is the repeated insinuation in some of the extras that DETOUR's doomed protagonist Al Roberts is a liar and a murderer. In his essay, Polito writes that DETOUR is a "progression of increasingly awful and improbable flashbacks" and calls Roberts' tale of fate and misfortune "steadily more suspect." In his interview, Isenberg makes similar comments, offhandedly implying that DETOUR is essentially the bullshit alibi of a killer.
The theory that Roberts is lying to the audience in his voiceover narration has been around for a while. I think Andrew Britton was the first critic I can remember floating this theory, though it may well predate him. In his 1998 review of the film, Roger Ebert cited Britton directly and fully embraced the theory.
I find this theory intriguing. I also find it wrong.
There's nothing in the text of the film to suggest that Roberts is anything other than a doomed man lamenting his fate. We never catch him in a lie. His tale is outlandish, sure, but that puts it on par with roughly one hundred percent of the film noir canon. Hell, most noirs start at outlandish and go from there.
I suppose my bigger problem with the unreliable narrator theory is that it undercuts what the film itself is telling us it means. DETOUR is the greatest statement of predestination in all of film noir. It ends with Roberts intoning the line, "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." As it is, this is one of the greatest lines in all of noir, but if Roberts has been lying to us about the deaths of Charles Haskell and/or Vera -- if he is not a victim of fate, but rather a victim of weakness and his own low character -- then this line totally misrepresents the entire story we've just watched.
Moreover, the unreliable narrator theory of DETOUR undercuts what, for me, is the film's defining characteristic: its wholehearted embrace of nihilistic doom. The message that Al Roberts gives us is shocking -- maybe too shocking for some viewers to bear. He's telling us that we're fucked. Whichever way we go, he says, fate will stick out its foot to trip us. Embracing the unreliable narrator, however, means assigning a moral judgement to his fate. Like Job's fickle friends, purveyors of this theory seem to be saying, "You must have done SOMETHING to upset God."
Maybe that's easier. Maybe DETOUR, undiluted with academic theory, is just too strong a shot of nihilistic despair. And, hey, I don't begrudge anyone the comfort of their theories. Life's hard. I get it. But I'll take my DETOUR straight up, no chaser.
Monday, March 11, 2019
The French edition of DRY COUNTY, titled AU NOM DU BIEN (or "In the Name of Good") will be released May 2nd. The French get it before the Americans (vive la France!). I'll be heading back to France this summer to do some festivals and signings. More to come...
Saturday, March 2, 2019
I am thrilled to announce that this October, Pegasus Books will release my novel DRY COUNTY. I've been working on this book for years now, and I could not be more excited to finally get to share with you.
To read more about the DRY COUNTY, click here.