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Othello Goes Hollywood

Orson Welles's adaptation of the Shakespeare play proves he was an indie at heart.


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**** (Masterpiece)
Directed and written by Orson Welles
With Orson Welles, Micheal Mac Liammoir, Suzanne Cloutier, Robert Coote, Fay Compton, Doris Dowling, and Michael Laurence.

Sustained until death at 70 by his fame as the prodigy with the baby face, Orson Welles always appeared to abide by words he put in the mouth of Citizen Kane: "There's only one person in the world to decide what I'm gonna do--and that's me." --from a two-page magazine ad for the Dodge Shadow that appeared last month under the heading "Amazing Americans . . . a celebration of people who have lifted our nation's pride"

I guess this describes the official Orson Welles we're all supposed to love and revere. The ad demonstrates how even the recalcitrance of a wasted and abused artist can wind up as a handy marketing tool. Chrysler, a corporation that never would have dreamed of sustaining, much less supporting Welles as an artist when he was alive--and surely wouldn't pay a tenth of what this ad cost to help make his unseen legacy available today--proudly invites us to join it in celebrating his artistry. Clearly they're onto something: loads of money can be made sustaining our self-applause for recognizing Welles's genius. But let's not be too quick about defining what this genius consists of. If we aren't careful, we may wind up honoring something quite different from what he accomplished.

Indeed, part of what continues to be fascinating about the unruly genius of Welles, seven years after his death, is how much it confounds the norms of commercial movies and conventional artistic careers on every conceivable level. Explaining who he was and what he did is a task that has already stumped at least half a dozen ambitious biographers, because the ordinary definitions, categories, and patterns of understanding generally prove to be not only inadequate but downright misleading.

Take Citizen Kane. At least three books on the film exist, and all three assume a priori that it's a Hollywood classic--an assumption that winds up determining almost everything they have to say about it. But while it was made in and released by a Hollywood studio, it shatters so many Hollywood norms that it seems debatable whether it's best understood as a Hollywood picture like Casablanca or Singin' in the Rain as opposed to, say, an independent feature that uses certain Hollywood facilities (which is arguably how it was considered before the books came along). Yet it's in the interests of the Hollywood propaganda machine--which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in every media branch and most academic branches--to silence that debate. Central to this self-protective agenda is proving that serious alternatives to Hollywood don't exist--ergo Citizen Kane was not an alternative but part of the mainstream.

This even became a concern when Kane was reissued in a "restored" version last year; actually the only changes were in the brightness of some shots, so that the opening newsreel wasn't as grainy and the projection- room sequence wasn't as dark--both obvious efforts to bring the movie closer to Hollywood norms. (The changes were made by Robert Wise, a onetime Welles associate who collaborated on Hollywood "improvements" of Welles's work as far back as The Magnificent Ambersons.)

For these and related reasons, Welles is almost invariably considered a Hollywood director--and sometimes a failed one because he directed only six studio pictures over nearly half a century. But the six represent only about a third of his completed movies and a fourth of his film output--even though, thanks to the nonstop publicity mills and their gospel of production values, they're vastly better known and distributed than all the others. You might say that a yellow brick road has been paved by the media to allow us to reach those six Hollywood movies, but to make it to most of the others we still don't have dirt paths or even maps. When it comes to unreleased unfinished independent features such as Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Other Side of the Wind, we may have to wait many more years for someone to put up the money to make them available. (The Spanish government has already agreed to preserve the dozen or so hours of Don Quixote footage, and a feature-length film carved out of this material will premiere in Barcelona this spring. But how long will we have to wait before American distributors show any interest?)

If we consider just the completed films over which Welles had final and complete artistic control, only Kane and the 50s TV pilot The Fountain of Youth even begin to qualify as Hollywood products. All the others--Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, The Merchant of Venice, F for Fake, Filming Othello, and a few other TV works--qualify as independent.

Othello was the first of these, and in many ways it remains the most important and exciting of them as well. It's more significant to Welles's work as a whole than Kane, because it leads to much more in his subsequent oeuvre--and its long absence from American screens has been a major obstacle for anyone wishing to understand that oeuvre. Originally designed as an Italian studio production in 1948, the movie underwent a radical conceptual transformation after the producer went bankrupt and Welles decided to finance it out of his own pocket. Other changes followed; when the costumes failed to arrive for the shooting of Iago's murder of Roderigo, Welles spontaneously decided to film the scene in a Turkish bath, which allowed him to go on working without the costumes.

Shooting it piecemeal at diverse locations in Morocco and Italy between 1948 and 1951--with bouts of acting and investor chasing to pay the bills--Welles literally reinvented and recast the rudiments of his style in relation to this new method of filmmaking, which he continued to develop over the remainder of his life. In place of the long takes of his Hollywood work, he fragmented shots into jagged crazy-quilt patterns and syncopated rhythms, often favoring jarring discontinuities in the editing over the dovetailing continuities of Kane and Ambersons. Without benefit of studio tracks or cranes, he opted for a rougher, more vertiginous form of camera mobility that was arguably more physical as well as more intimate (as in the evocations of Othello's epilepsy). The abnormal distances between people artificially created on RKO soundstages for Kane's mansion were rediscovered, then explored and amplified, in the architecture of Moorish castles and a Portuguese cistern--and thereby put to vastly different uses, as were the low angles composed in relation to this architecture. (Even a studio movie like Touch of Evil is radically different in its uses of locations and disorienting sound direction and distance from what it might have been without the experience of Othello.)

Without the resources of Hollywood sound equipment, Welles aimed for a rawness in such sound effects as crashing waves, colliding curtain rings, and echoing footsteps. Drawing from his prodigious radio experience (which entailed producing a weekly show for almost nine years as well as two previous years of acting), he partly compensated for his inferior equipment with subtle atmospheric effects that were dubbed in later and integrated with the music. Ciro Giorgini, who has been interviewing Othello crew members for an Italian documentary, wrote me that one of the production assistants told him that Welles stroked the strings of a piano to achieve a sound effect for the opening sequence and ordered a spinetta, an old form of harmonium, from Florence for other effects.

Othello originally had no nationality; it was assigned one--Moroccan--only when this became a legal necessity at the 1952 Cannes film festival, where it shared the top prize with Two Cents' Worth of Hope. Though Welles periodically lost financial control over the film afterward it was never, to my knowledge, significantly altered or recut by others. After he made his essay film Filming Othello in the 70s for German television, he suggested that a stipulation for showing the two films together at festivals--which he hoped would happen--would be showing Othello in a decent print.

This point seems worth emphasizing to counter the erroneous impression, created for advertising purposes, that Othello was ever a "lost" film. Good 35-millimeter prints still exist abroad, and the film was lost here only in the sense that Filming Othello still is: for an unconscionable number of years it had no American distribution. In other words, out of sight, out of mind--and anything not for sale is out of sight.

Welles was never a good businessman or salesman, but this hardly accounts for the cool American response when United Artists released Othello in the fall of 1955. Reviewers tended to compare it unfavorably to Laurence Olivier's Shakespeare films, finding it amateurish and self-indulgent relative to the polish and production values of Henry V and Hamlet. In some ways this response only repeated and amplified the objections to Welles's Macbeth seven years earlier: that Welles had done violence to the Shakespeare text, indulged himself, and made many of the lines unclear.

The main reason they were supposedly unclear was the Scots accents, and Welles was obliged to edit and redub a second, shortened version without them. In the process we lost the first ten-minute take in a released Hollywood movie. (The original version is now available on video, ten-minute take and all, and the lines are perfectly clear.) The lack of clarity of many lines in Othello was blamed partly on faulty lip sync, most of which has been eliminated thanks to the painstaking work done in Chicago on the new version. Frankly, I've always thought that both of these "problems" were partially excuses for people intimidated by Shakespeare or by Welles's refusal to approach the playwright on his knees. There was a widespread conviction back then that the best thing movies could possibly do was serve up Shakespeare straight. But if we recall that the Latin root of "amateur" is amare, "to love," Welles's romantic, impractical, and passionate commitment to his own work--quite the opposite of Olivier's bloodless professionalism--was the real scandal. "Fear of completion" may have been the charge that dogged him for most of the rest of his career, but it was clearly fear of incompletion that brought him to the end of this particular adventure.

I saw Othello on TV in Alabama in my early teens--by sheer luck it was the first Welles or Shakespeare movie I ever encountered--and was blown away by its dizzying mise en scene, its creepy horror-movie atmosphere (including the dank Moorish locations and the near somnambulism of Welles's underplayed performance), and the eerie and awesome power of the modernist score (still one of the best in movies). When I later read American "experts" on the subject--people such as drama critic Eric Bentley--I was shocked by their violent disagreement: "A film bad from every point of view and for every public. Technically, it is gauche, the dialogue being all too obviously dubbed. . . . To connoisseurs of Shakespeare, it can only be torture. . . . If Mr. Welles's failure as director is partial, as actor it is complete. . . . He never acts, he is photographed. . . . I don't know what The Daily Worker said, but it missed a trick if it didn't hold up Mr. Welles as a prize example of individualistic, bourgeois culture in decay. To which I suggest adding that the whole film is a precise example of formalistic decadence."

In retrospect, I think I can see now what made Welles's first unambiguously independent film an act of even more courage and defiance than Citizen Kane. In Kane he was bucking only Hollywood and Hearst; with Othello he was defying both Hollywood and academicians--not to mention the whole institutional setup for picture making itself, as it was then dimly understood by Bentley and others. Properly speaking, he had entered the treacherous domain of the avant- garde--probably against his own conscious wishes--and a substantial portion of the American intelligentsia never forgave him for it. From then on he would make features only with the support of European producers (with the exception of Touch of Evil)--and not very many of those. Then he died, and folks like the Chrysler people came along to explain how much we'd loved, appreciated, and sustained him all along.

Some people wonder today how a leftist like Welles managed to escape or elude the McCarthy witch-hunts and blacklists of the early 50s. The answer is that he was abroad at the time, striking out on his own--and not coincidentally filming a tale of treachery and paranoid suspicions, of jealousy and betrayal that reflected some of the traumas back home. Maybe some leftists got the message all too well, whether they consciously admitted it or not, and resented Welles's bid for freedom while they were suffering humiliations in the states.

It may not have been until the 70s that a sober assessment of the film as a Shakespeare adaptation was offered, in Jack J. Jorgens's excellent Shakespeare on Film: "Welles's Othello is one of the few Shakespeare films in which the images on the screen generate enough beauty, variety, and graphic power to stand comparison with Shakespeare's poetic images. His visual images compensate for the inevitable loss of complexity and dramatic voltage accompanying heavy alterations in the text."

A later part of Jorgens's analysis is so acute that Welles quotes it in Filming Othello: "The visual style . . . mirrors the marriage at the center of the play--not the idyllic marriage of Othello and Desdemona, but the perverse marriage of Othello and Iago. . . . If the film's grandeur, hyperbole, and simplicity are the Moor's, its dizzying perspectives and camera movements, tortured compositions, grotesque shadows, and insane distortions are Iago's, for he is the agent of chaos."

As you can see, I'm more than a little excited by the prospect of a movie as wonderful as Othello getting a second chance in this country. If any doubts remain, they mainly have to do with differing opinions about what Welles's Othello is--and what its "restoration" consists of.

When Francis Coppola proudly presented the "complete" Napoleon of Abel Gance at Radio City Music Hall in 1981, an entire subplot was excised so that the screening wouldn't run past midnight and jack up the theater's operating costs. If I'm not mistaken, the same subplot is missing from the Napoleon that's now shown on video and cable in the U.S., but not from the versions shown in Europe. Thanks to the complicity or indifference of the American press, most Americans who've seen Napoleon are completely unaware of this tampering. But considering that Coppola's name was much larger than Gance's in the ads--even though it was Kevin Brownlow who carried out the restoration--maybe they assume that it's Coppola's film, to do with it as he wishes.

No such deception has been carried out in the restoration of Othello; all the shots and 91 minutes are present and accounted for. But the aesthetic and historical issues raised by this new version are by no means simple, and the degree to which they've been mystified, obfuscated, and distorted in the press is unfortunate, because very few people who've seen the film in its present state have known what they were getting. Thus I'm fully in agreement with the New York Times's Vincent Canby, who reviewed "an expertly restored print that should help to rewrite cinema history"--though not, I suspect, in the way Canby intended.

I've known Michael Dawson, the local coproducer (with Arnie Saks) of the restoration, for almost four years, and thanks to him was able to meet Beatrice Welles-Smith--Welles's youngest daughter, who authorized the restoration--two years ago. In connection with my own research projects on Welles, Dawson and I have found many occasions to exchange information and thoughts; while our philosophy of film restoration is not the same, it's been a friendly disagreement. Dawson's approach is almost exclusively technological, and his aim has been to bring Othello's sound track in line with current commercial norms. But I believe state-of-the-art technology should ultimately be subservient to historical research that pinpoints as much as possible what's being preserved, altered, or discarded. Significantly, though Dawson eventually discovered that at least two distinctly different Welles-edited versions of Othello exist--the first premiered at Cannes and the second in New York--he researched this point only after the restoration of the second version was virtually complete.

In short, rather than concentrate on the film's history, Dawson concentrated on the technical challenges of the assignment--a job, I should add, that he and his collaborators have carried out most impressively, especially given the limited time and money they had. Yet no serious attempt was made to acquire the late Francesco Lavignino's score (though a friend of mine who knows Lavignino's family tells me it exists--contrary to claims made in the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere). Instead, conductor Michael Pendowski was asked to annotate what he heard to the best of his ability and then rerecord the music with members of the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera. The "redoing" of the sound effects in stereo was carried out by others in the same fashion. (This is considerably different from how the Village Voice reviewer claimed it was done: "The musical score was remastered . . . it's a bit like encountering a grimy monument that's recently been sandblasted." But then practically no press account I've read has accurately or adequately described the work done.) Consequently, while the visual work on the negative conforms mainly to a dictionary definition of restoration, the sound work obviously doesn't--qualifying instead as a highly subjective reworking of some of the original materials, a postmodernist dream inspired by the original Othello sound track.

To make matters more complicated, the film's New York distributor, Julian Schlossberg--whose name is as prominent in some ads as Francis Coppola's was in some ads for Napoleon--has altered some of the sound work done in Chicago. I won't even attempt to sort out who made which decisions, but I should stress that the protechnological, ahistorical approach adopted at the outset was not significantly deviated from. The underlying assumption appears to be that contemporary sound technology can only improve Welles's original work because he had inferior equipment to work with. My own assumption is that Welles's aesthetic decisions are impossible to isolate from what he had to work with--and that includes a single microphone when the score was first recorded. Hollywood buffs might judge these results substandard, but when you start to tamper with the original choices it's hard to know where to stop. (You might as well reshoot Citizen Kane in 3-D or Cinerama on the theory that if those technologies had been available to Welles in 1940 he surely would have used them.)

There are multiple consequences to this approach. While one could again quarrel with the brightness or darkness of particular shots, there's no question that the new Othello looks magnificent in terms of overall clarity. It also sounds wonderful, particularly if you place clarity and texture of voice and musical instrument over other criteria. Nearly all of the dialogue is in sync now, which is clearly an improvement, and Welles's own voice has never sounded better. But in many crucial respects, it's no longer a sound track by Welles. At best it's a sound track using or imitating some elements from the original film and not using or imitating others--and changing the relationships between those elements in the bargain.

The atmospheric effects cited above (such as Welles stroking piano strings and the use of a spinetta) are of course missing, though I suppose it could be argued that they weren't sufficiently audible in the original to inspire imitation. My problem is that what the original sounds like is more a matter of personal interpretation than one of scientific analysis, and I'd rather trust Welles on this matter than Pendowski (who freely admitted to me that he's not familiar with Lavignino's other work, which includes three other scores for Welles productions of Shakespeare. Even with the best will and mimicry in the world, most of the precise elements of the music and sound effects as supervised by Welles--specific performances, textures, and tonalities--are no longer part of the film. Neither, for that matter, is the chanting of Latin by monks in the funeral procession in the film's remarkable opening sequence--a prolonged hushed recitation that serves effectively both as a diminuendo after the music ends and as a tapering sound bridge to the silence that follows in both Welles-edited versions of the film. Why this major part of Welles's sound design was simply deleted is anyone's guess, though I'm told it may be restored in the video and laser-disc versions.

Where Welles and his crew got the sound of their crashing waves straight from the Mediterranean, the Chicago crew uses Lake Michigan. Where Lavignino's score at one point, according to Welles, used 40 mandolins at once, Pendowski's approximation never uses more than 3 or 4. Moreover, Pendowski had nothing to do with the rerecording of the sound effects, and one could argue that the sense in the original of music and sounds being aesthetically integrated is significantly reduced. The use of stereo adds further complications, involving many aesthetic choices Welles never had to make. (Some of these may not be detectable given the poor sound systems at the Fine Arts, though they're likely to matter more when the film comes out on video and laser disc.)

Interestingly enough, Welles briefly explored the possibility of recording Macbeth--the film before Othello, done entirely in a studio--in stereo, but I've found no clues about how he might have used it. Considering his eclecticism and originality, I seriously doubt that he would have followed the standard contemporary Hollywood practice of placing all the voices behind the screen and dispersing the sound effects and music through the other speakers, as has been done in this version. This has the effect of "normalizing" Othello in a way analogous to the mainstreaming of Kane--making it conform to a current Hollywood model of correctness. Certainly the dynamic relationship between dialogue, music, and sound effects is profoundly altered from the Othello I know and love; the percussive assault of the music in the opening sequence, for instance, is substantially reduced by virtue of being spread out like butter rather than brought to a sharp monaural point that pierces one's consciousness. The single most important aesthetic change that results from this--at least in my own subjective impressions--is that the film is no longer as spooky and creepy as it was; the spectral chill in its bones, which once made me think of Nosferatu, has largely disappeared. (Then again, maybe if Nosferatu were "sandblasted" and refurbished, it wouldn't remind me of Nosferatu either.)

These are the negative factors. What are the positive ones? As noted above, the new version looks glorious, and in some cases the effects of the film's checkered production history--such as the use of different kinds of film stock--are emphasized rather than played down by the overall improvement of visual grain, which helps somewhat to counteract the Hollywoodizing of the sound track. Yet because the sound is much cleaner, it's possible to appreciate many more aspects of the music and its orchestration, even if some of them are different.

The original Othello hasn't been destroyed (at least not yet). It's simply being kept from the eyes and ears of Americans for business reasons, much as the longer version of Gance's Napoleon is. With most of the dialogue now in sync, more of it can be understood than ever before; Bentley's complaint that it is "all too obviously dubbed" still holds true, but to a lesser degree. Whether Europeans, who've never expressed discomfort with the original version, will welcome an "improved" one--albeit in a Welles cut they may not have seen before--remains to be seen. But we should certainly rush out to see the new Othello and marvel at everything Welles brought to it. Whether we should regard it as a model for restorations to come is quite another matter.


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