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.”
- Composer and Prestidigitator Daron Hagen. (Photo by Karen Pearson)
American composer Daron Hagen has had an impressive and varied career, having worked with many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest musicians. He has received numerous awards, including a 2014 Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His works in a diverse array of styles and forms range from symphonies and concerti, to song cycles, and nine operas. His forthcoming opera, Orson Rehearsed, is being premiered next year, in September 2018, with his collaborators, Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble. Orson Rehearsed is based on the life and work of Orson Welles, but it is as groundbreaking and category-defying as many of Welles’s own projects. It draws inspiration from Welles’s career as a stage director, radio star, filmmaker, and even as a magician. Mr. Hagen has created a trailer for the project, which gives some idea of how unique this opera will be:
I was pleased to discuss this new work with Daron Hagen in an email interview.
F for Films: What makes Orson Welles the man an attractive subject for an opera?
Daron Hagen: I consider Welles to have been the quintessential American Artist, and his life story a parable with which every intelligent American can, on some level, relate. His intense commitment to social justice, manifested so clearly in his choice of subjects and in his personal decisions as a “self-made” intellectual whose first act was destined—from its explosive beginning with Citizen Kane—to be perceived (rightly or not) as his best. He was emotionally, intellectually, and by nature in pursuit of that which is larger than himself, and, as he got older, physically, the toll of that quest was written on his body. His choice of Kane, Othello, and Falstaff as artistic avatars alone would make him ripe as a figure for operatic treatment, but his fascination with the artifice required in the articulation of truth makes him the perfect operatic hero.
Early open concept workplace. Nightmare both then and now.
Welles and The Trial
Orson Welles’s 1962 film, The Trial, was his own loose adaptation of Franz Kafka’s German language novel from 1925. It has been justly celebrated by critics and Welles aficionados as one of his finest achievements, and is one of the few projects that he retained control of through the finished product. It is a masterwork of direction, writing, set design, and acting, but is sadly not known as well as many of his other works, probably due to the lack of a proper home video release in the US.* The film will somewhat resist interpretation, because as the narrator (Welles) famously says at the conclusion of the introduction: “It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream, of a nightmare.” Which is to say, no logic at all.
The eponymous villain of our story.
Mr. Arkadin, the film, may be regarded as a minor work in Orson Welles’s oeuvre, but his characterization of Mr. Arkadin provides a vehicle for some of his most subtle ruminations on the nature of evil. The film, released in various versions around the world starting in 1955 (and sometimes given the alias Confidential Report) is a convoluted potboiler, relatively unremarkable in the basic outline of the scenario, and steeped in the noir and crime fiction tradition. But through the distinctive editing, camera angles, and stylistic flourishes in the costuming and makeup, Welles gives us more than a first glance might afford. We find an exploration of sin, duplicity, and the grotesque that makes us question what makes a person a villain, and perhaps implicitly looks for a spiritual source for redemption.
Orson Welles’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a fascinating and partially successful experiment in translating the play from stage to film. Welles of course had a background in both theater and radio, and the legacy of both of those realms of experience is evident in his ambitious adaptation. What follows are some notes on my first viewing of the film, along with some insights drawn from Peter Bogdanovich’s interview book This is Orson Welles (edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1992), and from the invaluable Wellesnet.
Most of the time, a work of art–especially a dramatic work–is at pains to draw you into the story. In addition to the suspension of disbelief with regard to the story, there is a sort of suspension of the senses with regard to the technique, in which we enter into the world of the work of art on its own terms. The observer is not usually intended to focus on the technical means of producing the artistic effect, or the means by which the story is told. The tools used to create the work are not part of the work itself. Most of the time, these are means to an end. The viewer can of course be conscious of them, but they are still tools and techniques, and not the subject of the work of art.
Sometimes, however, an artist will employ a self-conscious or even self-referential display of these tools or techniques, intentionally drawing attention to the means of making the work, in order to convey a meta-message, or to enrich the storytelling in surprising and paradoxical ways. The medium of film has perhaps some of the greatest potential for showing the viewer the methods of its own production. But it is important to remember that the filmmaker, when showing you the “behind the scenes” footage as part of the main product, has made a conscious choice of what to reveal. Moving what should be behind the scenes in front of the camera does not make the product less scripted, more authentic, more real. No one is under the illusion that “reality” TV shows show us anything that isn’t scripted up front and then shaped in the editing room to form whatever narrative is desired. But should we not be just as skeptical about documentary films? And on the other side of the coin, are fictional films less true because they are made-up stories?