Chimes at Midnight (1966)

Chimes at Midnight (1966) movie poster

director Orson Welles
viewed: 01/30/2016 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Timing, they say, is everything.

A few weeks back, I watched the documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014), a reasonable primer on the man I think of as cinema’s patron saint.  The film gave a good deal of focus to Chimes at Midnight, a heretofore (for me) lesser known work by the creator of Citizen Kane (1934), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Touch of Evil (1958).  Welles considered Chimes at Midnight to be his most fully realized film, his personal favorite, and jokingly mused that if he had to be judged by one work in order to enter Heaven, this would be the film he would choose.

Lo and behold, only a couple weeks out and Chimes at Midnight has emerged from its prison of rights issues, been given a 4K restoration, and is released on screens in theaters.  And for us, it was here at our brand spanking new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at the New Mission Theater (opened only just in December after over 20 years of languishing and debate.  The theater is very nice BTW.)

The film is a striking thing, taking a play that Welles had cobbled together from five different Shakespeare plays, centering the narrative on John Falstaff, the obese, cowardly, jocund knight (played winningly by Welles) and his friendship with young Hal, the future Henry V (Keith Baxter).  They gallivant and romp and drink and rob and play, while Hal’s father, Henry IV (John Gielgud) disapproves, and a battle, the Battle of Shrewsbury, comes to a head.

One of the biggest things with this film is the sound quality.  Apparently, it was notoriously bad, and even with restoration, it’s still a right challenge to discern.  I’m not particularly attuned to the Shakespearean language, so concentrating is key, but dialog spills forth fast and furious and often indiscernible.  That said, even that didn’t fully take away from the film, but it does as well.  Perhaps repeated viewings lessen this issue, though at times it was almost like watching a film in a foreign language sans subtitles.

But there is a greatness here as well.  This film was not only Welles’s personal favorite and his last fully realized project, but something that had germinated with him for decades, through iterations of plays, honing in on his Falstaff, a character he identified as Shakespeare’s most profound creation and perhaps identified with as well.  Some have compared Welles to Falstaff, forsaken perhaps by Hollywood, or Welles as Falstaff, but also Falstaff as an emblem of Welles’s own father.  Who knows?

The passion for the character and story shows.  It’s a vastly interesting film, if confounding on the sound front.  We all enjoyed it quite well.

And my kids both wanted to get jobs at the Alamo Drafthouse (which is hiring).

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014)

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014) movie poster

director Chuck Workman
viewed: 01/04/2015

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles approaches Welles’s life and work in segments, chapters, and told through interviews, archival and new, film clips, and film references, with occasional screen text, but no narration.  With a brief bit about his childhood, it tells of Welles’s education, forays into theater, radio, and ultimately into film, his one true love, the one that would be so relatively cruel in return.

His failures in Hollywood pushed him into Europe and independent financing.  Richard Linklater appears, referring to him as the “patron saint of Independent filmmaking.”  To my mind, he’s the patron saint of cinema in general.

Chuck Workman’s film has its merits, hits the majority of the story, covers briefly at least each major work of the man, interviews family, friends, lovers, and many heavily influenced directors including Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, and Henry Jaglom as well as such oddities as Wolfgang Puck.

But it’s also a bit of a munge at times, cutting to films portraying Welles like Ed Wood (1994) in ways that are somewhat confusing.  I’d not loved Workman’s earlier film about the Beat Generation, The Source (1999), which was less conventional (but perhaps equally a mixed effort.)

It did reinforce my desire to see Welles’s films that I have not seen as yet, so there is that.


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) movie poster

director Orson Welles
viewed: 07/26/2015

In the annals of Hollywood, there are many great films and many lost or corrupted films and the notoriety of studio tinkering versus the visionary director is legend.  That is without a doubt true of the patron saint of filmmakers, Orson Welles, and his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, of which he allegedly said:  “(the studio, RKO) destroyed ‘Ambersons,’ and ‘it’ destroyed me.”

And yet, this highly compromised version of the film, of which Welles spoke so negatively in its diminished state, still ranks highly in esteem.  It recently placed at 11 on the BBC’s list of “Greatest American Films”, and can be found on many other similar types of lists.

Adapted from a Booth Tarkington novel about the rise of the automobile and the downfall of a well-heeled American family, it stars Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter and Tim Holt.  The film is both sentimental about the time before a town or city’s streets were overrun by the horseless carriages and less sentimental about the downfall of a pompous family and its scion who lacked the vision and conscience regarding love and re-marriage.

For my money, it’s an interesting film with some fantastic shots and some glimmering depths, but winds up as a melodrama with limited effect.  It’s the long-yearned for image of Welles’ original vision, well-documented but long-lost that tempts fans and historians.  We, the film-going world of ever-after, were certainly robbed by the tinkering and the lack of foresight that allowed the studio to destroy the extra footage.  Welles is indeed the cinema’s patron saint, and sadly, he represents more “what might have been” than what still exists.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) movie poster

director Orson Welles
viewed: 11/19/2013

Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, I hadn’t seen in close to 20 years, I think.

It’s a great movie, though a flawed one.   Isn’t every movie a flawed one?  There is no perfect movie, right?

One flaw of The Lady from Shanghai is Welles’ Irish brogue.  Back in the day, I guess, everybody thought they could put on an Irish brogue and get away with it.  As a friend pointed out to me, there is no part of the narrative that Welles’ character Michael O’Hara needed to be Irish.  So it’s a bit superfluous.

The big flaw in the film is that it was hacked up in editing and re-shoots, really blurring the idea of what this film could have been in Welles’ original intention.  Better or worse, one can only speculate.  Welles is the poster boy for what Hollywood does to a director with a vision.  It rips the film from the director, does whatever it wants to try to improve the film’s marketability to recoup their investment.  And back in the day, such as with this film, all original vision, version and footage is lost to time.

The film is still striking, vivid and interesting.  Individual shots and images are often intensely unusual, culminating in the film’s signature finale in the hall of mirrors at San Francisco’s long-lost Playland-at-the-Beach.  Welles shot a lot on location and there are a good deal of images of old San Francisco to make a resident swoon.

Speaking of swooning, Rita Hayworth.  ‘Nuff said.

F for Fake

F is for Fake (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Orson Welles
viewed: 10/17/06

It’s kind of sad how few Orson Welles films I have actually seen.  He’s one of those thousand-pound gorillas of cinema and well worth his weight…uh, this moved into some bad puns somehow regarding his obesity in later years.  Not intended.

As a narrator, his voice is second to none.  He exudes erudition and cleverness.

This film, a non-narrative examination of fakery, forgery, and falseness is truly complex and playful, while driving at some rather profound examinations of authorship and the meaning of art.  Focusing for a long stretch on Elmyr de Hory, a notorious and playful art forger with a long and adept (if questionable history) and Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer and also a falsifier of a notorious “autobiography” of Howard Hughes.  These characters both appear as themselves but significantly as questionable sources of information about themselves, mythologizers and liars, but playful as hell about it.

Welles sees himself along these lines and draws his own work into the discourse.  It’s a seemingly rambling investigation, using lots of unusual editing techniques and visual effects that further disconnect it from an appearance of offering a definitive approach to documentary.

The latter third of the film is the weakest, portraying a fictionalized story of Oja Koder, Welles’ longtime female friend, and her purported relationship with Pablo Picasso and some other falsified images.  It does add to the discourse, I guess, because it seems only important if its true.  Otherwise, it’s a somewhat interesting aside.  That is no doubt an aspect of the point of the film.

De Hory frequently asks if his art is less beautiful or important because he had painted it rather than Matisse or Modigliani.  When experts cannot tell the difference, does it matter who the artist is or was?  Doesn’t the piece itself matter?  And Welles’ response to this is the Chartres Cathedral, designed and built by unknown persons, its beauty transcends its authorship and depicts Welles’ most passionate opinion in an otherwise very playful film.

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941) movie poster

(1941) dir. Orson Welles
viewed: 12/22/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

Citizen Kane is one of those 500-pound gorillas of cinema. It’s not as daunting as much of the European avant-garde, after all, it was made in Hollywood during the height of the “Golden Age” and has great production and verve and entertainment value that probably most people could sit through with their grandmother. Actually, this time around, I was extra impressed with how entertaining it was, so I truly mean it.

It’s one of those films though, that I think most popular “critics”, by whom I mean the ones that everyone reads in the papers and magazines and on television, who still shape popular opinion far more than they should, will put on their “Best Movies of All Time” list and most often will deem #1. It’s like they are afraid to say that they actually liked Casablanca better. Or maybe they are so keen as to differentiate between what they like best and what is best. What is best anyways?

When I first saw Citizen Kane, at the age of eighteen, on a video cassette, I was incredibly disappointed. This film that was supposed to be “The Best” was more or less a drama (albeit quite an epic one), which was not my favorite genre. I didn’t get it. It’s so culturally ingrained, this film, though, that the first place that I had ever heard of it was in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts strip. A cultural reference from a period prior to the popularization of cultural references.

Since going to film school and having read a few texts in my time, as well as aging and (hopefully) maturing along the way, I learned more about the film, its context, Orson Welles, all of the legacy of the film, the drama of the film’s making, all of so much that is built up behind the film that does enhance its reception greatly. So, I see it now quite differently and seeing it on the big screen is also just so much more effective. And NEWSFLASH!!! It’s a great movie!!! (What did you expect?)

The other thing that I will mention here is how funny it was to see the film after all of The Simpsons reinterpretations that have been worked through. I have seen those Simpsons probably a dozen times in reruns since the last time I had seen Kane, and it was really funny to see how much of the film they use and reference, ecpecially in their Citizen Burns episode.

Yes, this is a terribly insightful site.