I waited a long time to finally watch Orson Welles’s Othello, in order to see it in fully restored glory on Criterion’s new Blu-ray release. Othello is the second of three great Shakespeare adaptations that Welles created, between Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. Whereas Macbeth was created on the low budget studio lot of Republic Pictures, and filmed rapidly in under a month, Othello was filmed almost entirely on locations in Europe and Africa, and was to take over 3 years to complete filming and post-production. Very different sets of difficulties presented themselves in making a studio picture versus an essentially guerrilla-style independent film, but the result was to be the harbinger in many ways of developments in his style that would result in films as varied as Mr. Arkadin and his later masterpieces The Trial, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight. While it does not reach the heights of that latter trio of films, it is nonetheless a worthy visual meditation on the core of Shakespeare’s great tragedy.
I say, “visual meditation,” because what is most striking about this version of Othello is not the power of the poetry (as one might expect from the gifted orator Orson Welles), but the primarily the power of the imagery. In scene after scene, Welles takes us through the emotional core of Shakespeare’s story, while taking out many of its most celebrated (and also its most controversial) lines. Despite being forced to piece together a patchwork of shots filmed literally across thousands of miles and years apart, there is a remarkable visual consistency, and a thematic unity to the black-and-white imagery. I cannot disagree with Welles scholar James Naremore, who wrote, “Of all Welles’s films, Othello is the one for which the adjective ‘beautiful’ is most justified.”
Not so nice laaaady.
Martin Scorsese has said that he did not originally want to make The King of Comedy (1983) when it was first presented to him by Robert De Niro—he “didn’t get it.” But, as he has explained in a couple of retrospective interviews, he eventually came around to understanding the script. The story follows the improbably named Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), who wished to make it big as a stand up comedian on the Jerry Langford (a brilliantly simmering Jerry Lewis) late night show. When Langford brushes off the unproven Pupkin, Pupkin’s attempts to gain Langford’s attention grow more desperate, culminating in him kidnapping Langford along with his equally obsessed and unstable friend Masha (Sandra Bernhard).
Scorsese told critic Richard Schickel (in his interview book, “Conversations with Scorsese”) that at first, he thought that it was “just a one-line gag: You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show. Hmm.” But he later began to see what De Niro saw in the script by Paul Zimmerman: the way celebrities like De Niro have to deal with “the adulation of the crowd, and the strangers who love you and have got to be with you and have got to say things.”
Fragmentary impressions of a silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Th. Dreyer, and starring Reneé Falconetti as Joan:
- The film is unique in my experience in the way that it refracts the point of view we experience through the constantly shifting angles deployed on the screen for brief moments before another equally striking image replaces it.
- The kaleidoscopic effect, rather than abstracting and distancing me, drew me into the heart of the emotion, and the spiritual nature of the simple narrative.
- Director Carl Th. Dreyer employs a rapid pace of editing that at times anticipates the style of a latter day music video.
- The pace is combined with the bewildering variety of camera angles, in almost exclusively medium to extreme close-up shots. The few instances of zooms or tracking shots are used with memorable specificity to emphasize the mood of the judges.
A crane shot, perhaps, of a crane shot.
It is probably not best to view a parody before you see the original work that is its subject. But in this case, I think no harm was done. I laughed out loud the moment I recognized the music that underscored the crane shot in the opening sequence of François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), having first heard it in this silly gem of an American Express commercial by Wes Anderson. Anderson, noted for his admiration of Truffaut along with other filmmakers, has no shame in pilfering shots, music, or other elements from films he admires. You can also hear the same music cue in the trailer for Day for Night (pardon the unfortunate English dub). Anderson even riffs on the scene where Truffaut’s character has to choose from a tray of guns needed for a later scene, as he gives us his tongue-in-cheek homage to Truffaut’s behind the scenes look at filmmaking.
One for the deceased gentleman, and one for his hearse.
Jacques Tati’s second major film as a director, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (M. Hulot’s Holiday), was released in 1953. This was the first to feature the character of Monsuier Hulot, a quirky everyman, who jauntily bumbles his way through a series of humorous episodes. Usually, the humor comes from Hulot’s unselfconscious way of disrupting the order of his environment, merely by being himself.
The obvious comparison for Tati, from my experience, is Chaplin. Just as in the films of the famous silent comic, Jacques Tati is the total filmmaker: a writer-director-actor who controls all the elements of his production. He has also created a comic persona in Monsieur Hulot, that—like Chaplin’s little tramp—is one of the great and iconic contributions to cinema. I have heard so much about the work of Tati, and now that I have finally seen the first of his films featuring M. Hulot, I know that the consensus is right—Tati is among the greatest filmmakers in world cinema history, and I am very excitedly looking forward to experiencing his other films. Continue reading
“Watch the road, dear!”
In Frank Nugent’s original 1939 New York Times review of John Ford’s Drums along the Mohawk, he observed, “The Revolutionary period, oddly enough, has been one of the least exploited epochs in our national history—by the screen, that is…” If we are discussing war movies, I would add World War I to the list under-served by the cinema. While we seem to get a new movie about World War II almost every year, these pivotal eras are rarely charted by filmmakers. So it is with great interest that I took a look at Ford’s film, which stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as a pair of newlyweds trying to make a life in the frontier when war against the British breaks out around them.
It’s not really a war movie properly speaking, but like most of Ford’s best loved pictures, a story of a family and a community. There are some battles, but most of them are off screen, or only spoken about. Ford is more concerned with the aftermath of the battles, and even the preparation for them, than on rousing footage of the actual skirmishes. The focus remains on the ways that the encroaching realities of war shapes and transforms a community. As one of the few wars fought on our own soil, this sort of story is very different than the ones where soldiers bleed and die across the ocean. Homes are burned by Indians allied with the British. The women and children of the frontier are forced to retreat to the relative safety of the nearby fort, abandoning their homes and lands. The militia is formed from the able bodied of the area, and drilled in preparation to defend the territory.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film, The Quiet Duel, is one of his least seen works, partly due to some obscure rights issues that has kept it from being released by Criterion or any other major home video label. The lack of visibility can’t really be blamed for the lack of acclaim the film has generated: it is a relatively minor achievement for Kurosawa. But is still worth seeking out for any fans of the Japanese master filmmaker.
One might assume that the “duel” referred to in the title was between the two major stars of the film, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, who had squared off the previous year in Drunken Angel, and would later famously be paired in such films as Seven Samurai. However, the title actually refers to an internal moral battle and struggle against a disease contracted by Mifune’s character in the course of his work as a doctor.
Last year, I attempted the Blind Spot series, a project where you watch one new-to-you classic film, and blog about it. This project is hosted by Ryan McNeil at the Matinee blog, and I encourage you to follow his blog for his own entries and those of the other blogs participating. I was not fully successful in getting 12 posts up last year, but I did achieve 9 from my list. I also saw lots of other new-to-me movies that I didn’t get to write about, so altogether I feel my 2016 film watching was a success.
I’m going to make another attempt in 2017 using this list. As before, I reserve the right to revise the list, but here’s the initial resolution:
As my thoughts are posted, links will be added to the list above. Here’s to a great 2017 of movie watching!