Thursday, July 25, 2019
Orson Welles's adaptation of Shakespeare's OTHELLO is a film of unusual beauty. Even among the work of a visual master like Welles, it stands out. I don't want to linger on the incredible story of the film's production, which took place on two continents over three years and is a legend in its own right (Welles himself covered this territory in FILMING OTHELLO). Though it's worth noting the frantic, often desperate circumstances that Welles, his cast, and his crew, found themselves in, what matters is what was produced by those trials: this strange and beautiful film.
Before I go further, I need to say that I'm going to be writing here about the 1952 European version of the film rather than the 1955 US/UK version. Both versions were edited by Welles, so both stand as a "director's cut." It's fascinating to compare them, to see two different ideas Welles had for the film. In 1955, Welles redubbed the entire performance of Suzanne Cloutier (as Desdemona) with the voice of actress Gudrun Ure, as well redubbing about half of his own lines. He cut the spoken credits that had begun the film, clipped some dialog, and added some brief bits narration to set up the plot.
For my money, the 1952 version is superior, and not just marginally so. The changes Welles made in 1955 produced a less compelling picture overall. His spoken credits in the '52 version allow for a much smoother transition between the tour de force opening funeral march and the beginning of the story proper. I've always considered the first dialog scene in the '55 version--where Iago and Rodrigo spy on Othello's wedding to Desemona--to be choppy and awkward. And Welles's narration in these opening scenes has always seemed to be an obvious patch, explaining things in the narration to cover over the confusing editing. In the 52 version, by contrast, the opening scenes get to breathe a little, and they play better without the expository, and largely unnecessary, narration. Welles also includes a line from the play that helps set up Iago's hatred of Othello ("It is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets he has done my office") that was cut in the 1955 version.
The larger change, of course, is the redubbing of Othello and Desdemona's dialog. There is, I will admit, a case to the made here for the '55 version. What Welles did in redubbing the dialog was to replace the elegant and meek Cloutier with the more forceful Ure. To match this Desdemona's new strength, he made his readings of Othello's dialog angrier and more macho. Some viewers will prefer this more "passionate" performance of the material.
But I think it worked better in 52. Cloutier's vocal performance of the material better matched her physical portrayal of Desdemona as a sweetly innocent girl. And Welles, in turn, responded to that portrayal by giving us an Othello that was a softer, sadder man driven crazy by jealousy. In '55, she's louder and he growls his lines more, but, in this case, less really was more.
One of the great joys of a Wellesian Shakespeare adaptation is Welles-the-screenwriter's lack of intimidation in the face of such a classic. He takes his scissors to the play and makes it work as a screenplay, clipping lines or rearranging them, sometimes just shaving off a work here and there, other times jettisoning whole speeches. If one wants to savor the Bard's original language, this is not the film to see.
Because what Welles does instead is to interpret the work as a piece of cinema, not just as a recorded performance of a play. Shot by shot, scene by scene, his visual compositions are a delight. Over the course of the production the director worked with five (!) cinematographers, but there can be no doubt that Welles himself was the eye behind the camera. From the opening funeral march, to the attempted assassination of Cassio in the Turkish bath, to the final scenes of Desdemona's murder and Othello's suicide, Welles creates rich, vivid images. Working in certain motifs throughout the film--prison bars and distorted mirrors--he varies angles on shots about as often as he cuts, giving the film a dynamic energy. And speaking of editing, scholars who have done the counting have calculated that OTHELLO has almost 2000 individual cuts, compared to 500 or so for CITIZEN KANE. While the cutting is a direct result of the circumstances Welles was working under, the film is unified by a vision. OTHELLO, after all, is a movie about the center not holding, about love and trust and friendship falling apart in a frenzy. And the movie itself reflects that idea visually.
Coultier is sweetly touching as Desdemona, but Welles is not a great Othello. Although his performance in the '52 version is superior to the '55, either way OTHELLO is a director's picture rather than an actor's picture.( This was true, also, of Welles's MACBETH a few years earlier. His Shakespearean triumph was, of course, FALSTAFF, a film that manages to be both an actor's picture AND a director's picture.) As both Macbeth and Othello, Welles is more declamatory than deeply felt, and his characterizations rarely go beyond a surface level reading of the roles. (Again, compare this to his more lived-in portrayal of Falstaff, the most moving performance he ever gave.)
The one great performance in the film is given by Micheal Mac Liammoir, the legend of the Irish stage who had been a mentor to Welles when the actor was just starting out as a teenager. Mac Liammoir's performance is the one that lingers after the film is over. As Iago, he creates a delicious vision of wily evil, of internalized malice and outward cunning. He seduces everyone else in the film, and even when he's finally caught and imprisoned in a swinging cage to watch Othello's body carried off for burial, his secrets are still his own.
Friday, July 5, 2019
It's an odd thing, writing a book. You work on it in solitude--in private, almost in secret--and then it's published and it belongs to the world. And by "the world" I mean "the people who read it." And then it has a life of its own. And sometimes that life comes to an end.
Back in January 2012, I published my first novel, HELL ON CHURCH STREET. It was a dark-as-sin novel about a corrupt Arkansas youth minster named Geoffrey Webb, a predator and a killer. The publication of the book was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. It was released by a small publisher, but the people who found it and got where it was coming from really loved it. One of my heroes, Jason Starr, called it "An instant classic." The Los Angeles Review of Books gave me a nice write up and compared me to Jim Thompson. I got a lot of nice emails from hardcore noir geeks. It was dope as hell.
Then something beautiful happened that I never could have expected. A French publisher found the book and loved it. He published it, and the book suddenly had a whole other life. It sold exponentially better in French than it ever had in English, and I got to go to France and tour. The book got great reviews there, and I won a big award. The success of HELL ON CHURCH STREET there set me up for even more great things to come: three more books released in French, another big award for my novel NO TOMORROW, and a translation of CHURCH STREET into Italian. I've been to France on five different book tours. This year the biggest French newspaper referred to me as "le grand Jake Hinkson." I just got back from my most recent tour two days ago. I was there for a month. It was an exhaustingly awesome experience. And I trace all of it back to the initial 2012 publication of HELL ON CHURCH STREET. Geoffrey Webb, that evil prick, has been damn good to me.
But Webb's days may have run out on him in America. HELL ON CHURCH STREET has been out of print for a couple of years in English. It's long story, but at present it looks like the book is too stiff of a drink for the American market. Unsympathetic characters and all that.
But listen, this post isn't about why HELL ON CHURCH STREET isn't going to be coming back into print here anytime soon. That's just the way it goes. It's even kind of funny, and almost kind of fitting, in a way. It's as if Geoffrey Webb escaped from his crimes in Arkansas and made his way to Europe, where he's living the good life.
I'm writing this post, in part, because I get regular emails from people who want to know when they'll be able to buy a copy of the book in English. (I got one of those emails yesterday, in fact, which is what prompted me to write this post.) The answer is: I don't know. Maybe never? Or maybe Webb will be back at some point. I really don't know. All I know is, I'm at work on new shit.
And that brings me back to my initial thought at the start of this post. Writing a book is an odd thing. I just released a new book, DRY COUNTY, in France, and it will be out here in the US in October. (Check it out here!) It's the best thing I've ever written, and I'm excited to see it released by a great publisher here.
And now, of course, I'm working on something new. Spent the morning writing on it. And I'm in love with it. I can't wait for it to come out one day.
So I guess I've moved on from HELL ON CHURCH STREET. What began as a story I was telling myself in solitude became a novel that took me further than I could have imagined. I can only be happy and grateful for that.
Thanks so much, Geoffrey. Or, as I guess y'all say over there, Merci beaucoup.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
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.
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.