Thursday, July 25, 2019

OTHELLO (1952)

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 be 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 word 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

The Strange Life And Death Of Geoffrey Webb

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.