Scrooge

It sometimes seems that each of us who have grown up celebrating Christmas has a film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that we know well and have seen repetitively over the course of our lifetime.

The 1951 Alastair Sim version may be the most “canonical” of the various adaptations, but each cinematic take has its partisans. For me, the reigning film adaptation will always be Ronald Neame’s Scrooge (1970), which I watch every Christmas Eve as a matter of firm tradition. It came out at the right time to be a major event in my parents’ childhoods, and they ensured it was part of mine.

Neame’s Scrooge was one of the last gasps of the old-fashioned epic musical film spectacular, and much of its charm was diminished in the pan-and-scan days of VHS. Now that it has released on Blu-ray, Scrooge‘s lavish production design and cinematography can once again be properly admired and esteemed. Scrooge is a proper Christmas feast of a film, a bit overstuffed, but satisfying and pleasurable nonetheless.

As with any familiar, oft-retold tale, the pleasures of a retelling lie in the grace notes applied to the familiar beats, and many of Scrooge‘s greatest coups are simply matters of astonishingly good casting. Albert Finney delivers an irresistibly amusing, astonishingly well-calibrated performance in the title role. Finney understands that Dickens’ Scrooge was always an absurd caricature, and he finds freedom in the character’s cartoonishness, effortlessly charting the character’s journey from extreme malice to abundant joy with surprising fluidity. But if Finney is the centerpiece, his performance is buttressed by a series of great turns from a supporting cast that includes Alec Guinness (surely the best Jacob Marley of them all), David Collings (a tender and endearing Bob Cratchit), and Kenneth More (a Ghost of Christmas Present who feels as great as he is supposed to be).

Bricusse’s lovely score provides the film’s throughline, and perhaps the only reason that its songs haven’t entered into the broader cultural lexicon is that its soundtrack has been stuck in limbo, unreleased. “Christmas Children,” in particular, should be a firm entry in the Christmas songbook.

Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera

Il Trittico, Puccini’s triptych of one-act operas, is back at the Metropolitan Opera this season, complete with a star turn from Placido Domingo. At the grand age of 77, Domingo has lost little of the vitality and virtuosity that propelled him to opera stardom, and he gives a vigorous, joyful performance in the title role in Gianni Schicchi, the opera that concludes Puccini’s Il Trittico.

The balance between the three operas that comprise Il Trittico can shift dramatically from production to production. Purely in terms of musical composition, Il Tabarro, the dark tale of adultery and murder that opens Il Trittico, may boast the greatest riches; certainly, it’s the most diversely composed and intricately structured of the three operas, layering vocal lines and musical modes in thrillingly unexpected ways. Suor Angelica, which follows, seems comparatively more straightforward, though it excels its companions in its seamless synthesis of drama and music. The lighthearted conclusion, Gianni Schicchi, features Il Trittico‘s most popular aria, but is not as musically complex as either of its predecessors, even if Puccini has a great deal of fun setting the comic libretto to music.

The current production, directed by Jack O’Brien with sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, originated in 2007, and it grants each of these operas a lush presentation with few key striking images. O’Brien has a better feel for momentum and movement than he does for dramatic nuance, which makes him a great fit for the manic madness of SchicchiTabarro perhaps lends itself to greater intimacy than O’Brien gives it, but the expansiveness of Puccini’s score means it can survive the sweeping treatment O’Brien applies to it. O’Brien seems to stumble somewhat when it comes to Angelica, which works best when presented with a level of psychological vividness that O’Brien’s broad strokes do not quite convey.

At least Suor Angelica boasts the fine talents of Kristine Opolais, who has become something of a recurring star at the Met, and her achingly sincere interpretation of Sister Angelica grounds Suor Angelica even as the artifice of the staging comes close to overwhelming it.

The Other Side of the Wind

“I’d call him a necromancer. But I do not know if he’s raised the dead.”

At long last, Orson Welles’ much-discussed The Other Side of the Wind has been completed and is now available to the world.

Wind languished for decades since the time of its troubled production, and, by the time of his death, Welles was only able to edit roughly forty percent of the film, some of which was presented as a showreel to potential investors. The money to finish the film never came and decades of legal battles over the rights prevented the film’s completion at the hands of Welles’ original collaborators. Now, not only has a full reconstruction of the film has been assembled, but you can stream the bewildering result right into your living room via Netflix. Until now, an Orson Welles film has never received such widespread distribution.

The Other Side of the Wind tells a quasi-autobiographical tale about a Hemingway-esque director’s spectacular burnout. That director, Jake Hannaford (played with scene-chewing gusto by John Huston), has spun wildly out of control due to his obsession with the film’s leading man, driving him off of the picture and leaving the production in a state of disarray. The picture itself unfolds over the course of a mad, drunken party, during which segments of the uncompleted film are exhibited by Hannaford and his production team. A host of critics and cinephiles have also been invited to the bash with the agreement that they can film the entire event. Welles’ film unfolds as a fictional documentary, prefiguring the “found footage” movement that would arrive many decades later.

The power of art is intimately tied to the way in which it functions as a vessel for psychic forces, and The Other Side of the Wind is all psychic force, so much so that the vessel itself shatters. The Other Side of the Wind is a film about implosion, both in its subject matter and its broader metafictional resonances. It’s an unfinished movie about an unfinished movie, a nexus point where Welles’ life and film work collide, intermingle, and then spin off into the shadows.

The mysteries and contradictions of the human mind loom large in Welles’ career, and though the films could not be texturally more different, the way Wind gestures back to Citizen Kane cannot be denied. In The Other Side of the Wind, art itself becomes Rosebud, at once revelatory and utterly irrelevant. Hannaford’s uncompleted film is a carcass which critics and biographers tear at like vultures. But in its eroticism, its unfulfilled desire, its fixation on the gulf between age and youth, Wind extends more directly from The Immortal Story, with both films pivoting around similar bedroom encounters.

The Other Side of the Wind ultimately reveals itself as a story of stunted, curdled romance. The film sketches out the details of Hannaford’s fraught relationship with his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), in dialogue, but the emotional force of Hannaford’s obsession with and repressed desire for his leading man can only be discerned within the fragmented scenes of the film-within-a-film. Hannaford’s would-be comeback film, which shares the name of the Welles’ film in which it appears, begins as an absurdly exaggerated bit of artistic pretension, skewering the kind of arthouse stunt-cinema that Welles so disdained. The vacuous, albeit colorful, theatrics gradually give way to a more and more personal expression of desire. Hannaford’s film is a bad movie that becomes a potent one only as it spirals ever further out of control, becoming a more and more honest and vital expression of its author’s repressed desires. The film is Hannaford’s confession, and, finally, his suicide note.

The film within the film contains most of The Other Side of the Wind‘s Welles-edited footage, so it crackles with an energy and fluidity that the rest of the picture cannot quite match. Welles’ editing language was a kind of alien tongue, a pulsing of pure instinct which cannot be recreated. While Bob Murawski, who was tasked with editing together the reams of footage into a film, does a more than admirable job, Murawski is also tasked with attempting to adhere to Welles’ original blueprints in a way that Welles himself would not have been had he been able to finish the picture. We can only speculate as to what impressionistic montages Welles would have produced from Wind‘s raw material. Much of Wind feels like the approximation that it is, and, being an approximation, it tends to magnify the limitations of Wind‘s structural components.

The Other Side of the Wind may be Welles’ most structurally intricate narrative picture, though, in broad strokes, it follows a format he utilized in earlier works. Like Kane and Arkadin, Wind is essentially comprised of a series of interviews and exchanges about a mythic male figure, but here all these moments are layered on top of one another. It’s often a thrilling effect, but in order to anchor the cacophony, the big dramatic pivots have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Bluntness and obviousness are not necessarily artistic sins, but whatever nuance or embellishment that Welles’ editing might have granted to this often broadly drawn material is a matter of pure speculation.

What emotional heft the film carries comes from its grace notes, those fleeting moments where, amidst the chaos, the veneers crack. Welles seems to wield Huston mostly as effect, a growling, demonic presence steeped in booze, but in moments where Hannaford’s dependence on those around him comes into focus (a dependence Hannaford greatly resents), the sadness of his existence shines through. His scenes with his great acolyte, Otterlake–portrayed by Peter Bogdanovich in a very self-effacing turn–are the closest the film comes to tenderness.

The jazz-infused score by the venerable Michel Legrand, who worked with Welles on F for Fake, locates and develops the existential momentum in the fragmented material, swinging along with the film as it shifts from despair to delirium. Of all the film’s elements, Legrand’s score feels the most complete, a gift from one of film’s greatest composers to one of film’s greatest directors.

At one point in the film, a character remarks that “no machine ever produces as much as it consumes,” a line that summarizes Wind‘s Hannaford and the carnivorous film industry he inhabits, but also plays as a bitter confession from Welles himself. In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles mined his own hardships and sorrows for drama, and ultimately the story he told in The Other Side of the Wind became a self-fulfilling prophecy, a hazy portrait of Welles’ self-destructive impulses that was derailed by those same impulses.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is a kind of miracle insofar as it’s as free a film a filmmaker could ever make within the constraints of the studio system. Coppola’s Dracula is endlessly, joyously experimental, a love letter to the old-fashioned trickery of cinema that revels in the beauty of artifice. This makes it close kin to Coppola’s late-period triptych of Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt, the three of which comprise Coppola’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker.

Dracula boasts career-best work from a team of incredible collaborators (among them, Michael Ballhaus and Eiko Ishioka). The film contains of such unearthly beauty that they take away my breath every time I see them (and I’ve seen them countless times), such as a princess’ gorgeously staged leap from the precipice of a tower, or a romantic dinner in a private room where the shadows of dancers play off of the glass in the background. What Dracula offers is something more than mere ornamental spectacle, a cornucopia of beguiling visions that nod back to a legacy of symbolist and expressionistic art.

Sadly, the tin-eared script often rears its head to interrupt the fantasia of images and sounds. This Dracula never quite knows what its doing with the historical detail and theological architecture it so carelessly emphasizes. The film’s risible resolution, a series of non-sequiturs about love and redemption and reincarnation, only re-emphasizes the thematic muddle at its center rather than providing a pathway through it.

There’s also an odd disharmony among the performances of the cast, whose heightened interpretations of these characters often clash in ways that are not especially productive. That said, I’m very fond of Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing, who is less the model of Christian virtue than he is a kind of madman who attacks metaphysical monstrosities with an abundance of dark humor, and it’s undeniable that Gary Oldman’s very theatrical Dracula finds new shades and colors within a character who, even by the time of the film’s release, had been already interpreted by a host of accomplished thespians.

Of all the film’s many admirable aspects, the component I admire most is composer Wojciech Kilar’s vivid score, which perhaps does more to unify the film’s disparate pieces more than any other element of the film. The sinuous and sensual love theme Kilar conceived for this Dracula (“Love Remembered”) is a work of art unto itself.

The Shining

“In The Shining you’re dealing with a director who is working for the first time in this genre and who seems to have a bit of contempt for it. He is obviously not interested in the conventions of the genre he he’s chosen; in fact, he seems to feel there would be something cheapening or demeaning in drawing from the wellspring of the normal genre conventions. Instead you sense that he wants to revolutionize it and make it something profound or significant. But the result is inevitably heavy-handed because what he has actually done is failed to realize the intrinsic beauty of the basic form per se.

The real trick is not to ignore the conventions but to take them and then personalize them.”

~ Brian De Palma, speaking in a 1980 interview with Ralph Appelbaum

The Shining has become such a significant film in the landscape of cinematic horror that it’s often easy to forget the mixed reception it received upon its theatrical premiere in the United States (indeed, Stanley Kubrick’s films, while generally successful in financial terms, were often met with mixed critical receptions), and during the film’s original run, remarks like De Palma’s above were not entirely uncommon. While I have my own misgivings about Kubrick’s The Shining, I believe that the allegations De Palma makes in that 1980 interview somewhat fail to appropriately diagnose the problems with The Shining (though his allegations are obviously revealing about De Palma’s own approach to genre storytelling).

Despite the widespread view of Kubrick as a kind of mythic mastermind who meticulously planned every feature of his films from the outset, the truth is that Kubrick discovered his films in the process of making them, often clarifying their intentions and effects in the editing room (even to the point of re-editing films after they had begun their theatrical run). I have never been entirely convinced that Kubrick entirely found what he was looking for in The Shining, and believe that the film’s conceptual fogginess is responsible for the number of absurd conspiracy theories that have sprung up surrounding the film (a number of which are memorably explored in the documentary Room 237). Nevertheless, there remain certain clues to what fascinated Kubrick about the material, and I think those who are curious that would do best to look back to the work’s genesis (such as this early treatment, authored by Kubrick himself, which differs from the final film in some key ways, but is also very consistent with it on other key points), and the film’s most final form, the shorter European cut of the film that Kubrick constructed after the film’s initial US release.

It’s evident that Kubrick quite enjoyed playing with the tropes and shock effects of the horror story; certainly, the enthusiasm with which he describes The Shining‘s events in that early treatment would seem to make it quite evident that that was part of what drew him to the material. If The Shining‘s effects are so blunt as to verge on the comical, that stems less from condescension than from Kubrick’s essential style, which often has a “Get a load of this!” undercurrent. After all, The Shining begins with the strains of “Dies Irae,” which is so unsubtle that it must be read as both a dark joke even if it also functions as an ominous effect, and that revelry carries through the film into the film’s famous “woman bathing” nightmare to the climactic hallucinations involving a man in a bear suit and, at least in the US cut, a table full of cobwebbed skeletons that might have come from a William Castle movie.

Structurally, The Shining remains stubbornly odd, though the clearest throughline in Kubrick’s film comes from its resolution, which was Kubrick’s most significant alteration to Stephen King’s source text. Kubrick’s suggestion that Jack Torrance, The Shining‘s primary protagonist, is not a victim of the haunted Overlook Hotel (as he is in King’s text), but an extension of it–that he is, and always has been, the haunted hotel’s caretaker, as one of the Overlook Hotel’s phantoms informs him–radically alters the nature of this haunted house narrative. Note that even in Kubrick’s early treatment, we find a variation of the finished film’s conclusion, in which a photograph reveals that Jack Torrance was once at the hotel in a previous life. Thus Torrance’s arc is less of a descent into madness than an awakening of his true, repressed self. The story of Jack Torrance is the story of the re-emergence of a demon of the dark, disturbing American past.

This adds a new level of emphasis to the way Kubrick’s film opens with Torrance driving to the Overlook hotel: The Shining is Jack Torrance’s journey home. The flickers of menace that occur in early scenes of Torrance with the hotel manager and with his family on the journey to the hotel hint at his unity with the malevolence with which the film presents us. This radically transforms the nature of the dysfunctional familial relationships at the center of the film in ways that author Stephen King has famously resented, but it clues us in to the existential horror that Kubrick sought to locate in this text, in which a legacy of American violence reaches into right into the heart of the American family, connecting historical atrocity with the intimate cruelty of child abuse.

Scholars debate which cut of The Shining Kubrick ultimately preferred, and the record on that score is mixed in ways that prevent us from arriving at any definitive answer. Kubrick left two cuts in circulation: the more expansive American cut, and the considerably briefer European cut, which trims many of the film’s languors, and notably shifts the revelation of Jack Torrance’s past physical abuse of Danny to much later in the film.

While the scope and scale of the American cut has its own level of appeal, the European cut has greater clarity and unity. The film becomes even more exaggerated, more heightened, offering less room for the viewer to reorient themselves between its pulses. The nightmare inundates the viewer like the blood from the Overlook Hotel’s elevator. The European cut offers only brief glimpses of the “real world” outside of the Overlook, reshaping the film’s central trio into almost archetypal figures in the midst of an infernal play.