Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view clear enough to make Dr. Xavier go blind

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Dipsomaniac Amore: FALSTAFF (aka CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT)

We fans of Welles and of his boozy expressionist MACBETH (1948) dreamt long and loudly of one day seeing a CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966) Criterion Blu-ray. Orson Welles' culling of Falstaff bits from several Shakespeare plays--put in a larger English history (circa early 1400s) context via Hollinshed's Chronicles--was damned hard to appreciate on graymarket shit dupes. The handful of critics who'd seen it on the big screen assured us it was a masterpiece, but with the usual muddy transfer, and a pace too rapid and over-edited and re-dubbed for our attention to rest upon, it looked (from within the murk) as if Welles had been editing it so discordantly that the only way to appreciate it was to have edited it oneself, to be so familiar with its rhythms and the story, that its ceaseless cascade of intricate movement and overlaps of drama, history, wry comedy, arrestingly grotesque woodcut- expressionistic deep focus frames, discordant distorted perspectives, bawdy double entendre, and poetry, could sing in the blood (and you'd have to be drunk). Enough forgotten words and slang phrases were used that we needed subtitles and a period English dictionary to unscramble it) and we didn't have them, unless maybe in Korean. What's worse, the whole cast within the film were laughing uproariously at every little movement of old Jack Falstaff, before we even got a chance to see him or get the joke, and that's an alienating effect, intentional or not. Looking so ballooned, as if he might bust or drop a sandbag out of his purse and float away out of the Mad magazine-meets-Bruegel frame, his voice sounding like ventriloquist throwing his voice back in time across vast sound mixing chasms, Welles' Falstaff seems hardly fit material for such guffawing. We're trying our best to keep track of what's going on but end up only worried we're not 'enjoying' it right -- their laughter becomes at us for being dimwitted philistines.

I tried to watch the whole thing once or twice but gave up, decreeing I'd wait for the Criterion. Maybe if the full scope and glory of the cinematography could be appreciated, the sound fixed up, this mountains of icy qualms into flattened puddles melt once the clarity and deep woodcut shadow returned. Well, the Criterion has come. No more excuses. Dive in! Sure it's taken me months to finish it, and to find at last the right mindset for it's odious savors sweet. But now allow me to suggest the ways I did it might for you too work, for why else would one watch it if not to boast later that one has and imply in doing so one is, what is the word, a cultured aesthete? 'Hiccup'

It's not rocket science, man. I relapsed over Xmas. Yea, for other reasons than Percy's scourge, yet I pray thee --judge me not. Because if nothing else, my cups grew so craked that by contrast Don Birnim would seem a lordly Dunsinane.

And so I 'finished' the Chimes at last.

I'd learned from my last relapse (1998), watching an old tape of Welles' Macbeth (1948) that Orson ranting under gloomy painted skies, swilling from his drinking horn, servant ready in the wings with the jug for refills, soothed the saucy doubts and fears of a lost weekend-into-next bender. When the brain is bobbing merrily in the amniotic surf, Shakespeare's language comes into delirious focus and the world's weight of guilt and dread for the coming work week (the boss's unanswered voicemails like an accusing blinking digit Banquo) find a perfect mirror in gloomy tripped-out Scotland, and in the process, are allayed, soothed. I still have the pages of almost illegible, whiskey-stained, hand-written notes, to the effect it was the ideal relapse play, the fall from sober workaday Eden and into the opiate-womb where three meals a day and a job as Thane of Cawdor are as unattainable as even getting up off your knees to add ice to your highball. (see: Hallowed be thy Shakes: Three Macbeths). Into that morass, Welles' deep booming voice, his mastery of Shakespeare's poetry, came a-rolling like a harmonizing deep bass chord, vibrating through the rapidly misfiring chakras and aligning them, shaking off some of the toxic fluoride crystal buildup from thy third eye pineal 'til it vibrates like a tuned electric tamboura. The best analogy I can think of for that feeling is the dread one might feel when alone on a rudderless raft being swept out to sea and looking back at the receding shore (knowing the only way back to sobriety is acute alcohol withdrawal, which is like being eaten by a shark in slow motion over a week-long period as you swim vainly against the outgoing tide). At such a moment of quite desperation/resignation, Welles' thunderous oratory filling the sail of Shakespeare's words like a westerly gale into the canvas sail of one's no longer-becalmed heart, not towards the land's thin mirage of the eastern shore, but via a cloud passing low one can climb onto to the cozy confines of the Republic soundstage and sail straight to Scotland. The full measure of Welles' resonant voice and the poetry of the dialogue cohere across moody Expressionist compositions to make all of Scotland feel like one gloomy haunted house ride one might climb a cloud to enter; the marching figures with their tall flags and hanging corpses; ghosts and Welles staggering around in his papier-mâché crown and furs like some drunken glorious fool at a masquerade;the court in attendance eying him with concern and useless suspicion, the way my own friend coterie was eyeing me as they prepared for another impromptu intervention.

So this time, after 19 years of not drinking... wine...  later, after running through my usual suspects (including, because it was on TCM, High Society which stuck in my head like a broken record), I found Chimes and remembered how Macbeth had so grounded me in its repeatable coil of brilliance, I did so hope Chimes might at last make sense, too. 

I remember as a kid a German translator friend of my dad's told me once that all Europeans have a drink before a language class, that it's like running a stuck jar lid under hot water; our language center yields its tight latch to let us think outside the parameters of sober syntax. Drinks weren't enough to learn French, I found that out, but they are enough to finally get and think in Shakespeare's old world pun-filled English. The loosening of the deeply-whetted brain's linear grip enables a kind of twisty tongue-tripping free-fall that the bard's hyper-articulate eloquence catches in mid-air and swings around as if a glowing orange between two high-wire acrobats, and Welles' resonant voice reaches into the bones and harmonizes them like so many low note Monk chant xylophone bars.

That's good, because all the while Chimes is harmonizing and filling thy sails, you're still out on that raft with no paddle being sucked out to the open ocean without a soul around to notice (if you're lucky enough to live alone), realizing you really need to jump off the raft and start swimming towards shore before it's too late to even try- but you're tired and the current is against you, and sharks and the undertow and you'll jump in a minute you're just trying to get ready; and then, presto, it's too late. The shore is just a thin black line against the sun setting in the west (you think). Then you can't remember which direction the shoreline even is, so you realize the next song you hear will be the sweet lure of the sirens to your exhausted cabin fever dehydration death.

What this means in relapse terms is that you wake up--usually on the floor or couch; in agony and unable to move past tiny increments--and it says either 6 or 9 o-clock on your VCR and either way you can't tell if its AM or PM by the thin gray light outside. If it's AM you're fucked: the liquor store wont be open for hours, and besides if it's a weekday you're going to have to go to work soon. If its PM on a weekday you're fucked, as you forgot to call in sick to work... again. You'd try to call now, or sit up, or make coffee, but just turning the channel to the weather/time is hard enough you get the dry heaves without finishing the rest of your warm foamy highball. The more you keep drinking the worse the recovery is going to be. But if you stop, the convulsions of withdrawal, the sheer human misery awaiting you is going to immense; so.... find that bottle... fast.  See, while you're drinking - ooh lah lah, hallucinations and sheer ecstasy, laughing with joy as Hal and Falstaff trade off on their impressions of Gielgud's dry air oratory as the king. Even if his officers hammer from without like Monday morning's rail-thin skeleton, their phone calls go straight to voice-mail. Away to the wars, they probably say. "Where are you? If you're there, pick up.... OK I'll try again later," they say. Being unable to even the find the phone, you declare pacifism and defy unemployment's looming shame to the empty air. This must be what heroin addiction is like you think, floating in the delirious freedom that only comes when normal life fades from view. To go from such withdrawal-based misery that you can't stand up or even move your head to see the clock without retching, to such narcotized bliss that you float beyond time and space, is worth all the suffering. The swimmer, pushing off from the bottom, swims faster upwards, breaching like a porpoise at the thought of a tossed fish. Hitting "bottom" is just the Phoenician sailor corpse's word for "a whole new worrrrld." Those are pearls that were his eyes. You can't even find your glasses, maybe they're all bent and broken under foot somewhere. You can find your glass, though, of course.

So... hit play, clink-clink the ice and pour the cure that makes a heaven of hell, (add grapefruit juice - repeat as needed). Feeling better now, you realize to your infinite joy that it's only 6PM on a Saturday. You have all the time in the world to get straight. Feeling good enough to mix another drink, to steady your wobbly raft as it were, you sit down with newly-minted drink for Chimes of Midnight. Ah yes, it barely matters that you've seen it three times in a row last night, because you forgot those times, aside from that it now feels warmly familiar. It's still so complex, strange, alien, that you often have no idea what's going on. But you know it must be art, because your soul feels so good.

This is because really, in a sense, like the demon in the whiskey that unites with the demon in your soul, Welles' Falstaff is the ultimate bad influence friend, both diegetic and meta-ly. We know the analogy. We're Hal, and John Falstaff is the booze, and he has got to go, and so we vow to shun him upon our ascendancy, but might we not put that off awhile? Though Sir John Gielgud the actor is a poster child for charm and wit in the service of base dissolution, John Gielgud's sober King is such a square and so ignobly come to crown (and blanketed by paranoia and guilt about it) that his road there carries its own sort of Macbathean self-fulfilling prophecy: the bad boy behavior of his princely son Hal with that fat rogue knight Falstaff approximates the shimmering accusatory finger of his own private Banquo ghost. He'd rather wish that some night-tripping fairy would go into the past and swap out louche Harry with noble Hotspur in their cradles than try to understand his own culpable odium in the equation. Of course he already does understand it, just as I wince to see my young wild magic repeated in the youngsters of today, all the same mistakes and illusions they won't be dissuaded from making and falling under... and to see my own hand in it, and so on down the line and then know my dad felt the same thing for my brother and I, as my dad watched but said nothing as his 1.75 Early Times Bourbon water line dipped and drained drastically when we were home.

That's why, for all its robust glory and rich language, Chimes is really a kind of Adam Sandler movie. Half the film is just compilations of elaborate insults, pranks, bad boy behavior, and real job shirking, and then---finally and with much (literal) trumpetfare--kicking the jonesers, townies and mooches out of your life. The sun shines and the clouds part. Adam Sandler grows up, gets a job and a nice girl; Hal gets a crown; you get "some help" and a sponsor; Master Shallow goes back to his own ruddy taverns to boast of knowing the man who knew you when, and then they forget you - for more naive and hitherto-sheltered freshmen are coming into town every fall.


It might have been pitched like that and done well at the box office--the violence of the battle and the lusty sex of the tavern with Jeanne Moreau's Doll Tearsheet played up, but instead, alas, Falstaff AKA Chimes at Midnight was paradoxically too old-fashioned and too sophomoric-- for swingin' '66. It proved yet another of Welles' art house flops, the equivalent of Oscar Jaffe's Valerie Whitehouse vehicle Joan of Arc. The art crowd of 1966 were flocking to see stuff like Blow-Up and Repulsion. A Shakespeare film starring a grotesquely fat malcontent with loads of overdubbing and complicated history, overlapping ornate dialogue that would be difficult enough to understand if read, let alone blurted in a post-dub rush over rapidfire grotesqueries and complexly interwoven fields of bawdy, profound, and historically-specific action, it was just too much johnson.

The first row is an array of successful art films from 1965-66 (for releases traveled slowly across country in a few prints) one might see in a row displayed before the local art house cinema.  Looking at the top row and imagining seeing all those posters in a row outside the theater, any promoter can see the subliminal issue why the lower row wouldn't fill many seats. Those movies have beautiful blondes; Falstaff has a grotesquely rotund brainiac nerd in full armor. Seeing it instead of, say, Persona is like admitting you're some wobbling bookish unlaid square with elbow patches on your tweed jacket and ink stains on your fingers from years of note-taking and running from the giddy, druggy thrill of svelte or buxom babes in shimmering mod clothes frugging to the latest psych rock jam or grooving down at the coffee shop to some bongo and guitar folk poetry until the (acid was still legal) drugs kick in. 
As you can see, there's no Janet Leigh or Rita Hayworth to put on the poster, no Edie or Catherine Deneuve nor Jane Fonda nor Raquel Welch. There's no 'sizzle' of the sort tarting up concurrent releases of similar length and film stock, like Fellini's La Dolce Vita or Antonioni's L'Aventura. All Chimes could promise was Welles--deep into his fake noses and rotund grotesquery--and some passing glances at Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet. There's a few wives on the opposing side (like Hotspur's lady, played by Marina Vlady) and gorgeous "seamstresses" up in the rafters when they're needed to wave good-bye, engage in folk dances, run from the sheriff, or assemble for impromptu plays, but these disappear from the sound mix and sight for great gobs of scene passing. One or two are cute enough we expect to see more of them, but Welles gives us less than a few seconds at a time, so we come to rely on the random shots of Moreau's face for our respite from the rustic manliness of the blood vessel-woodcut old faces or the inn's tripped-out expressionist maze of rafters (Welles loves ceilings). With every strand of wild hair brilliantly captured in Edmond Richard's dusky Haxan-ish photography, her face wreathed in spiderweb lines, Moreau's Doll pulls doting delight from deep within Sir John's sack-and-gout plagued corpulence, but one shudders to think the abysmal state of his 'bait and tackle' after this long and cancerous life --though Shakespeare's bawdy double entendres on STDs, cleanliness of drawers, and full chamber pots ("empty the jason")--makes sure we do, indeed, so shudder.

For a long time this was the only picture we could find of Chimes at Midnight
and it raised a lot of questions as to the age/relationship here, especially since, when I saw it first,
Welles' was in the news for allegedly bathing Pia Zadora (who was having her
Bardot-80s / Brooke Shields-70s x Zsa Zsa Gabor 60s / Charro- 70s  moment) in Butterfly (1982)
I mention this since it reflects the more elaborate expressionist approach of Welles vs. the psychedelic art house hit makers of the day. One involves an iconography beyond-spoken language, with youth and drugs provoking a post-modernist new aesthetic arrest that runs opposite to Welles' bellowing expressionist poetics. While booze dilates the mind's language center so it might easily swallow up Shakespeare's dense archaic language, acid eliminates words altogether, transcends them, to arrive at a kind-of 'impossibility-of-truth' with image and sound in and of themselves--the psychedelic impact on the senses is so amplified that intense that Wellesian ugliness can create in a bad trip panic - thus youthful beauty becomes essential to the point of compulsion. And music is the key...

If Wine be the Music of War, Drink On...

But great as she is, it's not enough nouvelle vague sizzle, nor is there the kind of violence or psychedelic "Euro" progressive mind-bending that was just getting started. Instead there's a merry olde score by Francesco Lavagnino, that's far too repetitive and jaunty in its main theme, as if he was so enthralled with Nino Rota's work on La Dolce Vita (1960) he forgot to bring in an actual mood of his own.

Then again, Lavagnino comes alive for that celebrated battle, adding wordless female chanting and military drums, so that it becomes an ominous liturgy heralding of the giallo eeriness to come. Falling deservedly at the top of cinema's best battle scenes (fitting perfectly between Potemkin's and Duck Soup's), the sequence is a whirlwind of Eisensteinian movement-based editing: horse's stabbed, clangs of metal on metal, bodies in armor falling, charging lances and waving morning stars, waves of soldiers riding in and archers letting fly, from organized symbolic nationality and cavalry card shuffling to pain and muddy brawl-- as if starting out a Riefenstahl equestrian Olympiad montage and ending a muddy massive post-game on-field soccer riot. With its rapid-fire abstract shots there's almost no gore, just a gradual erosion of imagery--there's not even any judgment or polemic - just a real-time example of how men like to get dirty and deadly. It's also a master class is making a hundred extras seem like thousands and of staging battle, without condemnation or celebration, but instead an in-between recognition of war's necessity for man's esteem and a sad realizing of his mortal frailty. In other words, Welles' battle is not a head-shaking "what a waste" dove polemic or a chest-thumping hawk call, but something more profound and important, a sense of nobility and grace achieved through mud, crying widows, and grievous wounds. Only Conan and Patton have maybe come close since.

And naturally, I most adore that--after the field is won-- Falstaff turns his section of the fray into a massive tailgate by pulling his rotund girth up to a big keg on the field of victory, and pouring out a measure of "sherri-sack," chilling around it with a coterie of the unkempt countrymen he pricked earlier. This being clearly a modus operandi for battles he's experienced before, declaring his love of sherri-sack for it makes normal men both brave and droll, "apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of fiery, nimble shapes, which delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue... becomes excellent wit." Adding, that sobriety thins men's blood which is why Hotspur fell, and that "if I had a thousand sons, I would make them foreswear thin potations and addict themselves... to sack!" At that point of course, being drunk and feeling guilty, thou mayest cheer. In Falstaff's sanctioned view, your addiction is a noble endeavor to make any Fagin-esque father proud.

That's the rub of the nutshell: we all wish it could go on forever, but war and the bender alike must end. A wild free-for-all, each is over in a flash, followed by months of recovery, limb mending and TV watching. Drinking speeds up time and the hang-over slows it, so eventually--as in The Lost Weekend--the only 'conscious' part of drinking is the pain of withdrawal, as that's the only thing we remember, the only time we're painfully, horribly conscious, aware of time's passage, plagued by saucy doubts and fears. If we got six bottles at the store the misery will be postponed a week or so, but that week won't be remembered, so we might as well get one. The joy of the plentiful glass may have been quite wondrous, but our takeaway is but a dim blur, a black space on the tape, a sweet narcotic black out, by shame and dread book-ended. We only have the evidence we must have had a blast, since we've left around cryptic clues, broken mirrors, ripped up pages, cracked DVDs--the vacuum cleaner left on, roaring away inches from our head on the carpet (true story), or the stove left on, a pot of pasta reduced to scorched resin, empties, the TV showing a patient DVD menu on eternal repeat (or in the old days, static), black bruises on our legs or arms, more empties-- all the battle fray equivalent of the bodies of the moaning wounded like unfinished meals left to rot 'til the stench stops on its own accord. Sooner or later, the bodies and the empties must be cleared from the field for the next big show; the booze gone, the wounded too messed up to even call downstairs for delivery, or for an ambulance. The show finally doesn't go on, and in that--freedom. We just had a sample of what suicide was aiming for. We skipped the earthly record.

Me, after my recent relapse left me too messed up even to call and order a liquor delivery, I quietly convulsed on the floor, Sinatra's slightly buzzed-flat reading of the line "She got pinched in the Ass- / tor Bar" from "Yes, Indeedy" kept repeating over and over in my head like a skipped record, ensuring I'll never be able to watch High Society again. That is my grievous battle scar. I have the shimmering soundstage poolside Apollonian temple to lovely Grace Kelly (who seems rail-thin) and the big central foyer outside "Carousel" in another TCM picture from the height of my cups, Logan's Run, blurred together like a fusion of the mall (where I spent my formative years' depression) and the hospital (where I'd be shortly). I can't watch that one again either. For awhile anyway.

Laugh and the world laughs with you, unless it doesn't know what you're laughing at --then it feels paranoid, like you're laughing AT it. 

Getting past the first chunk is hardest, for it plunges in and doesn't endear us to anyone: the voices seem mismatched, the words a muddle, and Hal and Poins laugh and cavort through and around interwoven camera movements with such hearty dubbed relish at Falstaff's cumbersome knavery before we even see him, that we're automatically alienated and thinking we made a mistake - after all, that far drunk it's no easy thing getting up, finding a disc, opening the machine, taking the current one out and putting the new one in, all without falling over, smashing the tray, breaking or dropping or losing either disc, and putting the old one away before it's scratched. The whole operation requires a finesse ill-served by a bender. We're putting a lot of hope on old Jack Falstaff, but before he even has a chance to stir from his mountainous slumber, Poins and Hal are rolling around on the ground, laughing both with him and at him, planning all sorts of teasing jests and bringing up older ones, that they--at least-find side-splitting, but leave a bad taste in our mouths (Hal being royalty who thinks he's being a rebel by robbing from the middle class). Meanwhile the landlady bustles about demanding payment and reciting Sir John's bill, which the boys think is guffaw-worthy, but gets me mad. I hate the whole concept of credit and when people give credit to a rogue like Sir John or that terrible fisherman Mr. Johnson in To Have and Have Not I lose respect for them.

At the same time we're thrown into the political intrigue with Henry's father King Henry VI, who's sort of held onto a temporary king appointment and left the rightful ruler (by his brothers' decree) rotting in some faraway French jail, refusing to pay the ransom. In this sense, Welles keeps our alliance divided -- we actually do like Hotspur more than Hal on some level, as he at least has a young wife he loves and a sense of fun in honor rather than reveling in juvenile vulgarity and deadbeat debauches. The best Hal can do as far as restoring honor to his name is the kind of half-hearted declaration of the prodigal son, who promises to straighten up after his dad bails him out on his second offense. And is this not the claim made by addicts, drunks and slumming socialites, that this rough company is an example of the sun permitting "the base, contagious clouds to smother up his beauty from the world," so that when he pleases can shine be "all the more wondered at"? For if "all the year were playing holiday to sport would be as tedious as work" (and therefore vice versa). Hotspur, clearly, finds time for bot and has grown a far healthier landscape. Harry's not wrong to want some night-tripping fairy to proclaim which whelp is rightfully his own. And it's Hal's killing of Harry in the duel that makes this truth all the more painful. Truly, the better man has lost.

"The day is wasted if you're not" - La Greco
But really, the most offensive thing, perhaps, is that Falstaff is supposed to be so endearing that makes his going too far painful, like when he takes credit for the death of Hotspur and since he's part of Hal's base company it doesn't matter if the king even believes him. He's gone too far - and it makes me like the man even less than before. Maybe the problem lies in positioning, my favorite Welles characters--Quinlan, Macbeth, Harry Lime, Will Varner--aren't supposed to be o'er lovable. They aren't kept in the company of guffaws and loving looks. In fact it's only at the moment of his profound realization that his thing with Hal is kaput, that he's out in the cold and that he deserves it and it's the way of the world, and he wouldn't fit in anyway and Hal's doing him a favor, and so forth - that Welles' Falstaff actually seems to become warmly human-- it's a powerful, haunting moment and Welles carries it sublimely. It's one of those rare persona breaks that major stars sometimes perform in films, that are all the more valuable for their rarity--Cary Grant's breakdown before the child services director in Pennies from Heaven, Robert Redford cracking his voice at the end of The Way We Were. If we get this far in, we're already hooked of course. We've figured out Welles' unique rhythm and can comfortably let the words we don't know slide clear away. And, too, Criterion's disc has subtitles and audio commentary by James Naremore. He's good at keeping the historical background front and center rather than getting too lost in production history (which comes out more in the great extras). This is essential for understanding as is (I found this very useful), the English subtitles, since so many of the words are forgotten slang anyway (which most adaptations would subtly modernize) and so casually tossed off (this one can look them up if needed). Also, the more we watch the less the dubbing aspect becomes noticeable. Especially as the film goes on it seems to all but disappear as a problem. In short, if ever a disc was worth owning and studying and watching obsessively while drunk, this is it. Welles' Macbeth for your first big relapse; Falstaff for your last.

my alternative poster (so it seems almost nouvelle vague noir)

The last, you have heard me. Never say never but we have heard the chimes, man. All things must end - and if we're lucky they end in an Ativan drip and Librium dispensed by beautiful young nurses in powder blue scrubs bathed in the nighttime glow of their mobile medicine tray computer screens like shimmering valkyrie. Let no man stand alone in that dark and dingy hour. With no Welles art thy cups abused but though his mud-and-blood besotted gravity swallows up thy trapped and troubled shoes, in his boozy expressionistic poetry art thou art lifted, shoeless... through.

Lifted, drunk and truly through.

 Bright Lights -'Welles plays Macbeth like someone just waking up in the drunk tank after a three-day blackout. .."
1. Corman imported so many of these and one wonders just how much his genius with marketing had to do with the entirety of the art house movement. Sex sells the first ticket and art keeps the word of mouth high. 

Shrooms, for Remembrance: Mel Gibson's HAMLET (1990) in Psychedelic Context

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous17 June, 2017

    reading this 'round 6 o'clock on a Saturday night, all synchronized. Fond memories of a few artsy/fraty bros in college who NAILED this Sandler version of Henry IV/V.
    They must have seen this somewhere!
    Thank you for the poetic words about addiction too :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...