Sunday, December 3, 2006


Thursday through Saturday the WHC hosted a conference on Orson Welles, featuring some pretty obscure stuff. In his career, Welles went from being the infant terrible to the exiled renegade to the old, legendary hanger-on (in my teens he was best known for those silly Paul Masson wine commercials, "we will sell no wine . . . before it's time" -- I will confess that Paul Masson was the first wine I bought as an underage drinker, possibly because of Orson). I didn't make it to the conference proceedings, unfortunately, but I did make it to see the closing showing of Welles' masterful adaptation of Shakespeare plays that feature Falstaff. The film is called either Falstaff or Chimes at Midnight, and, for legal imbroglio reasons, hasn't been available except in awful VHS prints. We were treated to a 35 mm print and were told that it seems the end is in sight and a fully restored print will be used for DVD purposes.

The genius of Welles is in the camera set-ups and the editing and the lighting. The latter, particularly, is where he offers a model that many could benefit from marking. Lighting in most films is completely uninteresting, oftentimes cloying, never inspired. Welles understood that film is actually painting with light and that each shot can be a new "take" on the scene. In Falstaff, those "takes" are like a series of Netherlandish paintings, awash in chiaroscuro -- even the robbery scene takes place in a dappled forest with visible beams of light. And the ways in which he illuminates himself as the face of Falstaff is nothing short of breath-taking: Falstaff's visage is the text of the film, everything is written on it, a life of the most taken-for-granted humanity. Nothing Falstaff does or has done is lost on Falstaff; he is always equal to the task of being himself. This comes out wonderfully in the scene when Hal and Poins try to baffle him about his tall tale of being robbed after robbing. Falstaff is one who accepts that others will "suffer" him because they always have and now he is old.

In editing, there are many examples of how Welles thinks. That is to say: editing is the syntax of film, and syntax, as we know, is what makes the expression of thought individual. We all have to use the same words, more or less, but how we put them together is anyone's guess, is, in fact, the game at hand. Welles is never content with unremarkable editing. Some might say he's at times too flamboyant, that editing, like syntax, shouldn't distract from the scene or from the point being made, but Welles would seem to demur. His editing is very conscious, deliberate, and so makes us not simply follow a scene, but follow the shots of a scene. The battle sequence is the most stunning I've ever seen because it doesn't simply "record" the battle, it comments on it, and it inhabits it, and it observes it, and it expresses it, and, with the quick cuts to Falstaff in armor looking like a little wind-up toy, it also ironizes it.

Camera set-ups are a particular delight of Welles': long-shots, close-ups, point-of-view shots, shots composed within arches, with figures in close, middle and far distance in a single shot, a huge foreground presence (Falstaff) as Hostess Quickly runs to answer the door in the background, and of course those famous low-level shots that cause characters to loom larger-than-life. The particularity of the camera shots is what makes the first viewing of Citizen Kane such a memorable experience: one sees the film as images, as something we have to "look at" as well as watch. The crown's split-second point of view shot when King Henry puts it on the pillow beside him is the kind of "grace note" sort of thing that Welles likes to risk doing.

All these elements of Welles' cinematic greatness make Falstaff a triumph. But what about The Bard? Was Shakespeare well-served? Gielgud is on hand to deliver a soliloquy ("uneasy sleeps the head that wears the crown'), shot so that his eyes are mostly in shadow and his mouth, speaking the passionate and despairing speech, is in bright illumination. Nothing could've more emphatically made the point that kingship as Henry lives it is all words, a way of cozening the populace into accepting him as king. Also, Falstaff's famous speech about honor, delivered in middle shot while he and Hal stand side-by-side on the field of battle and clouds move in swift and evanescent shapes behind them, is a masterful marrying of image and speech.

Welles generally strikes me as a hammy actor -- I think his Macbeth never finds the heart of the part but is mere show. But that hammyness helps in some cases: enacting Charles Foster Kane and Falstaff, two roles that show him to be an actor with the skill of forgetting himself in the part (rare enough in movie acting). The best scene for this is the moment when Hal, as King Henry V, denounces Falstaff ("I know thee not, old man") and Falstaff's face, as he hears the high imperious one cast him off, registers first surprise and shock, then pride in what his dear boy has become (a true king!) whom he would love to embrace and win over, then finally a slack realization that all his hopes have died. It's all in reaction shots, in silent acting worthy of Emil Jannings, the great German actor of the silent screen.

We have seen the Chimes at Midnight. Of that I'm glad.

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