Friday, February 5, 2016

Orson Watch: Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight) - 1965

I had more or less no idea what this movie was until about a half hour before I left to go see it.  PaulT and I haven't been able to hang much lately, so when he pitched going to see an Orson Welles movie I'd only heard of here and there, I said "yeah, sure!".  Because (1) hanging out with PaulT is always a good time and (2) I am truly trying to weight the number of movies I watch this year that are new to me at something like 70%.  Thus, I'm trying to be game for anything pitched my way, especially if it'll include a beer with a pal.

At this point, I am still not sure if this movie is called Falstaff or Chimes at Midnight or Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight).  I do know it was released in 1965.  It was not well regarded or received upon its release, and it doesn't get much play out there.

It's a strange adaptation of Shakespeare, and I actually asked my boss a few questions Thursday as she has a Masters from UT in English, and did her thesis on some aspect of Shakespeare, and my familiarity with The Bard is exceedingly limited.  Welles plays Falstaff, a recurring character in Shakespeare's plays, specifically Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, as well as The Merry Wives of Windsor.   I haven't seen any of these as movies or on stage, nor have I read them.  To me, Falstaff is an operatic character and one I mostly equate with Thor's buddy, Volstagg.  And, at that, I haven't thought much about the character other than that by my late 50's, I expect to be referred to as Falstaffian in stature and temperament.

In this film, Welles pulled out specific scenes from the plays (as well as Richard III and Henry V) and assembled the story of Falstaff as its own Shakespearean show, complete in 5 acts.  There's a couple blasts of narration which are, in turn, quotations from an historian discussing the actual Henry IV.

Filmed in Spain in very real castles for sets, the film is wonderfully, beautifully shot - the same mind that mastered the visual medium in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons is on display here, framing each shot perfectly, telling the story as much through image as sound and dialog, creating stage pictures via lighting, blocking, and nuance in character.

The challenge of an all-Shakespeare-dialog fest is that, if you're me, you take the first Act and a half tuning yourself to the speech, barely keeping up.  To muddy matters, the dialog is delivered in rapid-fire, if character driven, form, making it even more difficult to keep up, then looped, somewhat poorly.  Whereas, I am sure, Shakespeare fans will alert me that's my failing as an audience member, they can kind of go jump in a lake.  If I can't understand what you're saying, that's a fact, not a sign of anyone's dumbness.  And it's too bad it was difficult to keep up, because there was a lot there in both the comedy and tragedy of the show, and I'm not sure the sold-out house I saw the movie with caught many or any of the jokes (Falstaff is a largely comedic persona) based on the scant laughter over the two hour running time.

Welles likely adored Shakespeare, and he produced it from back in his Boy Wonder days on the stages of New York and in his media work.  And it shows.  He has a very clear vision of who the characters are as both archetypes and people.  The story of Falstaff has the energy of classic myth, the way it's presented, and it's unbelievable it wasn't all told this way, from this perspective.  All very different from Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which thrusts the two supporting and doomed characters from Hamlet into the fore, the joke being that these two are at the hands of fate as minor characters.

I suspect that this movie would grow on me tremendously with subsequent viewings, when I didn't struggle so much with the language.  The themes of age, of a life ill or well spent, of the things we've seen that we reflect on as we pass into our dotage as time takes its toll and our hopes for glory even in our final years, is something that we'll all contend with.  The transformation of young men (and, universally, women as well) of questionable character into the men (and women) they need to be by circumstance and the crucible of challenge and parental hope and expectation resonates.  The collapse of friendship in the wake of change and transformation is the sort of thing that, also, works on the level that makes Shakespeare relevant in any year.

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