Saturday, July 09, 2005

Orson Welles: Filming Othello

The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952)
Directed by Orson Welles

More items Wellesian: found on the excellent site For some reason, maybe only endemic to my idiosyncratic perspective, Welles' Othello seems to be one of his more "overlooked" films - if such a word even applies to the minutely researched films of Orson Welles. I remember how stunned I was upon first viewing. I had already seen Kane, Ambersons, and Touch of Evil many times. Othello, while still having all the hallmarks of a Welles creation, seemed entirely new to me. Not quite an evolution, but close. I set it right next to Chimes at Midnight in the sense that it shows the sort of remarkable range he had - especially to complete such films under such adverse conditions.

The transcript below is well worth reading in it's entirety - and worth posting for the Carlyle quote alone.

A Complete transcription of Welles' last finished film: Filming Othello and an interview with cinematographer Gary Graver by Lawrence French. All material courtesy of Lawrence French.

A long clip of the opening funeral scene from OTHELLO (1952) is shown, and then we see Orson Welles sitting at a movieola, having just run that scene.

ORSON WELLES: This is a movieola. A machine for editing film, but you know, when we say we're editing or cutting a film, we're not saying enough. Movies aren't just made on the set. A lot of the actual making happens right here; a movieola, like this is very nearly as important as the camera. Here films are salvaged, saved sometimes from disaster, or savaged out of existence. This is the last stop on the long road between the dream in a filmmaker's head and the public when that dream is addressed. (Thomas) Carlyle said that almost everything examined deeply enough will turn out to be musical. Of course this is profoundly true of motion pictures. The pictures have movement; the movies move. Then there's the movement from one picture to another. There's a rhythmic structuring to that; there's counterpoint, harmony and dissonance. A film is never right, until it's right musically. This movieola, this filmmaker's tool, is a kind of a musical instrument. It's here that other film instruments are tuned or finely orchestrated, so as we're finally ending up our conversation here, you'll understand that as a filmmaker I'm speaking to you from my home.

This is to be a conversation, certainly not anything so formal as a lecture, and what we're going to talk about is OTHELLO. Shakespeare's play and the film I made of it. That sounds rather arrogant doesn't it, just naming the two in the same sentence. The truth is, of course that by any real standard of worth, comparison is not merely impossible, it's absurd. The play is something more than a masterpiece. It stands through the centuries as a great monument to western civilization. Take an arbitrary figure: Twelve. Name twelve plays which could be called great. OTHELLO must be one of those twelve. Of that twelve, at least nine (which is another arbitrary figure) are by Shakespeare. That leaves three on our list for all the other writers who ever lived. Is that putting it too strongly? Or is it too high? You can't go higher than that, and Shakespeare remains immortally number one. Among all dramatists the first. The greatest poet, in terms of sheer accomplishment, very possibly our greatest man. So where does that leave a mere moviemaker? Nowhere. Nowhere at all, unless we leave out all comparisons and consider that my OTHELLO, based upon, adapted from and inspired by William Shakespeare's tragedy has some little right to be considered on whatever merit it may presume to have as a movie. And yet, if merits there be, this is not at all a conversation, nor am I the conversationalist to treat it. Don't imagine for a moment that I'm pretending to be modest, it's just my fixed conviction that critical opinions about one's own work should be left to others. Is my movie, OTHELLO good or bad, flawless or flawed, a masterpiece or a mess? It's been vigorously and viciously attacked, denigrated and dismissed and also praised, sometimes quite extravagantly. I don't know your opinion. I won't tell you mine. I can't help the movie by telling you it's good, or if I think it's bad, if I really do, I better not say so. Why? Because this movie is still being shown in theaters. (laughter) People are still going to see it, and I'll admit to feeling quite happy about that. Good or bad there's still some kind of life in it, which is the reason I'd be sorry and I guess pretty foolish to do anything to kill it

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