Friday, September 2, 2016

In the Midnight Hour

This month the DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter celebrates its 32nd year as a publication. 
For the last two years, we've featured monthly excerpts written by the newsletter’s critic Doug Pratt. His insights into the latest offerings in the home-video marketplace have become one of our most popular features. And rightfully so. Whether you are a filmmaker or someone who appreciates a good film or TV series, Pratt has been writing his impressions on a wide assortment of offerings across the entertainment spectrum every month for over three decades. He's somehow delivered to his readership something that is not easily obtained today — clarity. 
Don’t mistake my appreciation for Pratt’s longevity as a fine writer on the arts as a superficial compliment, a blurb written out of professional courtesy. I actually believe success and longevity in the visual arts is typically rare. A TV show that once captured the attention and devotion of mass audiences in the 1970s is most likely unwatchable today. And one of the biggest problems the major studios have been encountering in the last decade is in realizing a respectable financial return to the movies they shot and released during the 1980s. It appears no one is much interested in revisiting this lost decade of movies, including the newest generation of film fans. 

So, when it comes to the shelf life of any artist who plies his trade (and art) in movies or TV, longevity can be considered an accomplishment if his work is still recognized today. Especially if one of his original creations was largely dismissed when it was first received by audiences. 

In 1965, a desperate filmmaker, Orson Welles, was finally able to get CHIMES at MIDNIGHTreleased to theatres. It took him years to cobble together the financing for the production, and even longer in the creation of the finished movie. Unfortunately, the distribution was a disaster. His film was largely unseen by U.S. audiences and dismissed by reviewers who did see the movie. 

The negative reaction pretty much sealed Welles’ fate as a washed-up filmmaker. He would never direct another theatrical movie again. His principal occupation afterwards was as a habitual guest on numerous TV talk shows; and as a commercial spokesman who specialized in touting
upscale products for consumers, like wine. Indeed, Welles was the original “Most Interesting Man in the World,” decades before any of the ad executives who created the “Dos Equis” commercials were probably born. 

And yet, here we are, fifty-plus years later, and Welles’ 1965 box office/critical disaster is now
considered a classic movie, possibly the best film adaptation of Shakespeare, and a relevant work that even modern audiences will appreciate. The passage of time withers and decays almost everything, especially pop culture. But sometimes it takes years, decades, for a work of art to become ageless.   

 Glory                                               DOUG PRATT

First, there is the poetry, William Shakespeare’s so brilliant ordering of words and their ideas that the listener is ashamed to share the same language and have not even a fraction of a fraction of the same skill in expressing it.  Then, there is Orson Welles’ cinema, which visually in its design, construction and rhythm is the equal to Shakespeare’s poetry. And finally, there is the drama, that exciting combustion of Shakespeare and Welles, which brings together the abstract elements of image and sound to manifest a human narrative so comprehensive that it drenches the viewer in every level of emotion and interaction, from the basest squabbling of peasants and thieves to the loftiest conflicts of governments and kings, while wickedly demonstrating that there really is no difference between the two, beyond costume and manner.
Welles’ masterwork, CHIMES at MIDNIGHT, is a jewel so radiant in cinematic expression that it stands as both the equal and opposite at the conclusion of Welles’ film career to the masterwork that began it, Citizen Kane. Released at long last on home video in America, and more thrillingly, on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection (UPC#715515184311, $40), the 1966 feature is an adaptation
mostly of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I and Part II, with a few references to the characters from other Shakespeare works slipped in.  
What grabs you the instant the film begins is its momentum. Despite being based upon texts that were nearly 400 years old, the film was so far ahead of its time that almost no one noticed how groundbreaking it truly was when it first appeared. 
Its MTV editing has only now come to be accepted, but the movie’s pace never falters, as one stunning shot flicks by after another, each so exciting that your anticipation quickens with intensity at every cut.  Welles’ rich experience in stagecraft, which vastly outweighed his experience in motion picture making, is so astutely integrated with that motion picture making that the one is wholly incorporated by the other. Characters constantly circle one another.  If a character in the foreground is stationary, there is business going on in the background, but that business is never distracting.  Instead, it colors or reinforces the business in front.  So everything is constantly moving, constantly progressing and constantly pushing the narrative along, as the dialog flows like a determined river, unimpeded by any change or edit in the images.
Knowledge of the film’s production history is not required to observe that it was shot in a piecemeal fashion, intermittently, over a lengthy period of time.  While some of the settings and some of the crowd sequences are very impressive, the budget was obviously thinner than Falstaff’s purse.  There are shots where characters freeze or move in a jumpy fashion because Welles is duplicating frames to maintain the pace he wants.  The dialog, at times, does not match the lip movements, and you can hear Welles’ voice coming out of more than just Welles’ character.  In this, it is the opposite of the studio production, Kane.  But like Kane, every sequence and every moment is a film experience so invigorating that it teaches you how to appreciate the world around you.
In addition to directing, Welles plays the rotund Falstaff as a jolly old elf, but shifts effortlessly to serious introspection when the dialog takes him in that direction.  One of his greatest and most meticulous performances, he cuts an indelible figure, even when he is entirely hidden beneath a comical shield of armor.  Keith Baxter has the central role as the prince torn between his love of the environment around Falstaff and his responsibility to his father, the king, played to gripping textual perfection by John Gielgud. Margaret Rutherford is also nicely cast as the innkeeper, and Jean Moreau and Fernando Rey appear, as well, with a historical narration delivered in voiceover by Ralph Richardson.  It is also worth noting that the film has a battle sequence at its halfway point that is remarkable for both its economy and its realistic depiction of the messy horror of war, all the while being as exciting as all get out. 

The black-and-white picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1 and it looks beautiful.  The close-ups are incredibly detailed and textured, and the backgrounds are vivid.  The monophonic sound is very clear, but most effectively smoothed over, as well, so that Welles’ post-dubbing and other trickery rarely calls attention to itself.  The musical score, by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, is as clear as it comes across on the soundtrack LP. There are optional English subtitles, and a trailer. 

The supplements are worthy of the film, and systematically insightful, beginning with a spellbinding 30 minute interview with Keith Baxter, who talks about being blown away when he saw Gielgud on stage while a teenager, and the brilliant advice he received later on from Gielgud when they shared a scene in the film.  “‘You’re not observing the iambic pentameter.  You must breathe.  Shakespeare gives the actor time to breathe at the end of every line.  You must always breathe at the end of the line or at the punctuation.  If you break it up, it’s not Shakespeare, and what is the point?  We’re doing Shakespeare.  You see, Keith, if you do that, when you’re speaking Shakespeare, you’ll find it’s like being on a surfboard and it carries you.  Shakespeare’s genius will carry you.’”  (He does a wicked imitation of Gielgud within the film, too.)  He explains that he originally did the same basic show on the stage in Ireland with Welles, and then was summoned to Spain for the film, which Welles connived by pretending that they were going to shoot Treasure Island.  He compares Welles to Falstaff, not just because of his rotund stature and gregarious personality, but because, “He was always looking for a buck.”
Welles’ daughter, Beatrice, played a young page in the film, with a few lines that were dubbed by a boy (her presence also gives the film a compelling metaphysical perspective, a reminder, as it were, of the film’s creator), and talks about her life with her father in a fascinating 15-minute interview.  He introduced her to many of the joys in his life, from caviar to bullfights, and he let her hang out in the editing room as he worked his magic on the Movieola, such as his ingenious construction of the battle scene.  
“I was there, when we were shooting the battle scene, and it was, you know, three men and a dog, and a couple of spears.  It was amazing.” 

Biographer Simon Callow, speaking with heartfelt emotion for 30 minutes, provides a history of Welles’ interest in the material, which extended back to when Welles was in his teens, and he discusses quite insightfully the different components of Welles’ brilliant artistry, be it the film’s design, or the performances.  “What is so apparent on the screen is that Baxter adores acting with Welles, Welles adores acting with Baxter.  There’s a great complicity between them, which is palpable and which is a wonderful thing to see.  He was very isolated as an actor.  His performances are hermetic, they’re self-contained, they’re worked out, cleverly, and very forcefully executed.  You see the character; whereas, here, you see the relationship.  You see the electrical impulses passing between the two men.  It’s fantastic.” 
Another biographer, Joseph McBride, talks for 27 minutes about his conversations with Welles and his own experiences with the film’s exhibition.  Like Callow, he summarizes Welles’ lifelong history with the material, discusses the influence of Welles’ own father on his interpretation of the Fallstaff character, and other details.  Additionally, he talks about Welles’ filmmaking skills, and cites examples in Welles’ other films of technical approaches to filmmaking that he then utilized in CHIMES at MIDNIGHTIn 1965 Merv Griffin caught up with Welles while Welles was editing the film, and the result is an 11-minute interview that was broadcast on his talk show.  Oddly, Welles cites every major performer in the cast except for Baxter, but otherwise gives a pretty good spiel, promoting the film and showcasing the battle sequence.  He also chaffs a little bit when Griffin tries to turn the conversation to Citizen Kane.
Finally, there is a commentary track with yet another biographer, James Naremore, who deconstructs the film efficiently if somewhat superficially, explaining the visual dynamics of each scene, the character relationships, and an overview of how the scene was staged.  He also supplies a quick history of the kings, and talks about a few of the outside cinematic influences that inspired Welles and guided his hand.