Thursday, May 13, 2010

Welles on the Big Screen: Reflections on a Retrospective

The AFI Silver just finished its two month long retrospective of the films of Orson Welles. While I've seen all of his finished films multiple times, this is the first time I've seen most of them in the theater. So, first, a wholly predicable observation: the films all play better on the big screen. This is true of most films, of course, but some directors benefit even more from having their images projected on the biggest wall imaginable. Welles's idiosyncratic, shoestring-budget epics were designed to be projected high and wide (he was an independent filmmaker, but it should always be remembered that Welles's favorite filmmaker was John Ford). Here then are some reflections on seeing the Great One's films on the big screen:

1. All of Welles's film play better on the big screen if only because everything is literally larger, the flaws and the virtues. Case in point: Mr. Arkardin, Welles's weakest film. This film was taken away from Welles and edited without his input, but I doubt that even an editor of his skill could have salvaged the lackluster central performances and uninteresting mystery that is supposed to propel the movie along. There are many versions of the film running around, from a masterpiece of film restoration to an abomination. But the bottom line is that the film itself simply isn't that good. Now having seen the film projected (in its Confidential Report version), however, I can say that it's exponentially better on the big screen. The saving grace of the film, damaged as it is, has always been the strength of Welles's visuals--his odd camera placements, his eye for location, the giddy proliferation of his throwaway details. These pop off the big screen in a way that they can't at home, even in Criterion's beautiful box set. I still can't bring myself to call Arkadin a good movie, but it's growing on me.

2. Welles's under-appreciated Macbeth is especially helped by enlargement because more than any other other film I can think of, it blurs the line between cinema and theater. Its large, empty spaces--and Welles's brilliant manipulation of long takes within them--work much better in a large format. It's like being inside a gigantic play.

3. For years now, I've been saying that the DVD of Citizen Kane was brightened too much, but after seeing it at the AFI I'm not so sure anymore. For instance, I've long thought that the opening scene in the projection room was supposed to be darker. But when I saw Kane projected, the brightness level of the room looked about equal to the DVD. Perhaps the projectionist played it too brightly, but I don't know. This leaves me wondering. Any Wellesians reading this are invited to write and let me know what they think about this issue.

4. The Lady from Shanghai is a beautiful mess of a movie. Watching it, one longs for the movie it could have been. The opening scenes are particularly painful to watch. Filmed in three long, complicated takes (much like the opening of Touch of Evil), they were chopped to bits by the studio in an attempt to fit them into a standard
shot-reverse shot format. There is still much to enjoy about the picture, like Everette Sloan's fantastic performance--one of the best Welles ever directed, I think--or the location filming in Chinatown, or the famous hall of mirrors shootout. As you watch the film, however, it's difficult to turn off the commentary track in your mind. You know you're only getting a taste of these elements. There was so much more before Harry Cohen took the scissors to the film. For more on the backstory of this movie, read here.

5. That's doubly true for The Magnificent Ambersons. If The Lady from Shanghai was Welles's attempt at epic noir, Ambersons might well have been his masterpiece. The film is so assured, so well balanced between comedy and tragedy, that it's easily the most stylistically classical of the director's work. The damn thing
feels like a masterpiece, an example of Welles working in a lower key and showing his supreme control of it. It glides toward its resolution with elegance and grace...until the last fifteen minutes or so. Watching Welles's gorgeous tragedy stumble into a hamfisted, studio-created happy ending is simply heartbreaking. The effect could not be worse if the film simply jammed and burned in front of our eyes every time it hit the 75 minute mark. For more on the downfall of the film, read here.

6. Othello is another beautiful mess of a movie, this one the result of a long and extraordinary set of circumstances (so extraordinary in fact that Welles made an essay film about it). But, god, what a lot of fun it is. It's such an odd piece of work: a disjointed and rambunctious adaption of Shakespeare. It's thoroughly flawed--the first five minutes are worse than Lady from Shanghai and impossible to follow unless one already knows the play--and yet its restless let's-keep-things-moving energy is its great appeal. Its rapidly edited images are extraordinary--even more so racing by on the silver screen. Welles is surprisingly touching as Othello, but the film belongs, as it should, to Iago, played with smooth impenetrability by Micheal MacLiammoir.

Next week I'll continue with The Stranger, The Trial, F for Fake, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight.

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