Undine Comes into the House of the Fisherman by John Henry Fuseli, 1821
Undine Comes into the House of the Fisherman by John Henry Fuseli, 1821
The death of the author (or, more accurately, author-as-imaginary-construct) is the primary concern of Roland Emmerich’s most personal and artful film, his Shakespeare-conspiracy-theory melodrama Anonymous, in which art overwhelms and obscures the circumstances of its creation. Those circumstances are decidedly outrageous, mingling political revolts, attempted assassinations, illicit romances, and unspeakable family secrets.
Among Anonymous‘ many fine attributes (including a memorable turn from Vanessa Redgrave) are the sublime images of cinematographer Anna Foerster, which are better seen rather than described:
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, 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 Schicchi. Tabarro 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 Aegean Sea by Frederic Edwin Church, ca. 1877
“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.
Over at Rise Up Daily, there’s a blurb by yours truly about Bernard Herrmann’s extraordinary opera, Wuthering Heights.