Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Dipsomaniac Amore: FALSTAFF (aka CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT)

We fans of Welles and of Macbeth dreamt long and loudly of one day seeing a CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT 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, it was damned hard to appreciate on the old grey dupes that for decades were our only option - and tough to find. The one critic who'd seen it on the big screen assured us it was a masterpiece. But if saw clips or dupes we couldn't get past things like the terrible dubbing, annoying music, muddy transfer, and a pace too rapid and over-edited for our attention to rest upon. It looked from this vantage as if Welles had been editing it over and over to please himself until the only way to full appreciate it was to have edited it, to be so familiar with its rhythms and the story. Enough forgotten words and slang phrases were used that you needed subtitles and a period English dictionary to unscramble it). That you could one day know enough of what was going on in the story to relax and focus on the arrestingly grotesque woodcut- expressionistic deep focus frames, discordant distorted perspective gags, and ramshackle post-slapstick was but a dream of more patient scholars. Certainly the cast seemed to get it, laughing uproariously at every little movement of old Jack Falstaff, played by the big man, Orson, as large as a house. Disconcerting, in a way, to see Welles so ballooned, as if he might bust or drop a sandbag out of his purse and float away.

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, this mountains of icy qualms would unto flattened puddles melt. Well, the Criterion has come. No more excuses. Dive in! Sure it's taken me months to get to it, and to find at last the right mindset for it's odious savors sweet.

To figure out where amidst the din we may plant our flag of comprehension and bemusement, or for other reasons, I relapsed over Xmas. Yea, for other reasons. So I pray thee --judge me not.

I'd learned from my last relapse (1998), watching an old tape of Welles' Macbeth (1948) that Orson ranting under gloomy painted skies as old Bill Shakespeare fit a lost weekend bender quite well. Shakespeare's language comes into delirious focus and the world's weight of guilt and dread for the coming work week find a perfect mirror in Macbeth's ghostly floating dagger. I still have the pages of almost illegible hand-written notes to the effect from that lost week 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. All that emotion the alcohol loosened, coupled to the dread one might feel 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 can be fatal without hospitalization and/or benzos of one's own), becomes so sublimely coordinated when entraining to Welles, his thunderous oratory filling the sail of Shakespeare's words like a westerly gale into the canvas sail of one's no longer-becalmed heart, that a whole new plateau of ecstasy emerges - not on the horizon as some shimmering mirage but as one's current fix. Watching as Welles staggered around the Republic cowboy sets, the feeling of guilt and remorse as my life up to that point seemed to dissolve in tatters behind me like a Cawdor pennant in the gore and discarded branches of Birnam Wood on the fields of Dunsinane. The full measure of Welles' resonant voice and the poetry of the dialogue cohering across moody Expressionist compositions that made all of Scotland feel like one gloomy haunted house; 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 while the court in attendance eye him with concern and suspicion the way my own friend coterie was eyeing me and preparing for another 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 remembering how Macbeth had so grounded me in its repeatable coil of brilliance, I did hope Chimes might at last make sense. 

And all was well for the first 2/3 - that warm bath of Welles + Shakespeare claimed me as if some night-tripping fairy plucking me from my pet bed pillow and dropping me into his hearth-warmed amniotic purse. For to comprehend why Shakespeare is easier to appreciate when drunk is to need to first be drunk oneself. 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 for this very reason; it's a bit like running a stuck jar lid under hot water. Staggering into my 8:30 AM French class still drunk from the night before back in my freshman year of college, hiding my stamp-covered hand from the disproving teacher as I once again displayed my lack of studying, I realized alcohol alone may not have been enough. I got a D-, but at least I scared the shit (or "merde") out of her. Vive la France! (un petit mort aussi).

But that was because I didn't study or really care (language was required), but when just dealing with Shakespeare's semi-olde, pun-filled English poetry, it's close enough to our own the loosening of the deeply-whetted brain's linear grip enables a kind of twisty tongue-tripping free-fall that his 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 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 way the shore is at all.

When you wake up and it's 6 o-clock on your VCR 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. 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.

The convulsions of withdrawal, the sheer human misery awaiting you is going to immense but 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. His officers hammer from without like Monday morning's rail-thin skeleton, phone calls from concerned co-workers that go straight to voice-mail. Away to the wars, they probably say. Being unable to even the find the phone, you declare pacifism to the empty air. This must be what heroin addiction is like you think; you're floating in delirious freedom. To go from such degradation and misery of not being able to stand up without retching, to such narcotized bliss is worth all the suffering. The swimmer pushing off from the bottom swims faster upwards, enough to breach the water like a porpoise. Hitting "bottom" is just the Phoenician sailor corpse's word for "a whole new worrrrld."

So... hit play. 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 now, because you forgot those times, aside from that it now feels warmly familiar.

This is because really, in a sense, like the demon in the whiskey that unites with the demon in your soul, it's the ultimate bad influence friend both diegetic and meta-ly. Sir John Falstaff has got to go, but what are the options? Go home? Though Sir John 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 that his road there carries its own sort of Macbathean guilt -- considering the bad boy behavior of his princely son as 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 trade louche Harry with noble Hotspur than try to understand his own culpable odium in the equation.

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 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." 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 canceled Joan of Arc. The art crowd were flocking to see stuff like Blow-Up and Repulsion. A Shakespeare film starring a grotesquely fat windbag, with loads of overdubbing and complicated history, overlapping ornate dialogue that would be difficult enough to understand if read, let alone spaken in a rush over rapidfire grotesqueries and complexly interwoven fields of bawdy, profound, and historically-specific action.

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. Falstaff is the tubby brainiac nerd no one wants to invite to the prom. Seeing it instead of, say, Persona is like admitting your 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. In other words, you're stuck home babysitting your portly step brother instead of running amok with the hot mess blondes of your inner clique. Oh! How wrong they were/are!
As you can see, there's no Janet Leigh or Rita Hayworth to put on the poster. No Edie or Catherine Deneuve or Jane Fonda or Raquel Welch. There's no 'sizzle' the way concurrent releases of similar length and film stock, like Fellini's La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2 had.  Audiences would line up for Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg or Sophia Loren, and if they got a little art with their cleavage, hey, sounds great but they didn't have to admit that was why they came - like being able to say you read Playboy for the articles. Not to say it's always needed but (to paraphrase Lorelei Lee) my goodness, doesn't it help?

All Chimes could promise was Welles deep into his fake noses and rotund grotesquery and some passing glances at Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet. A few wives on the opposing side (like Hotspur's lady, played by Marina Vlady), whores and seamstresses in the rafters else (one or two--being hot--I'd faith see further, but never do), we come to rely on the random shots of Moreau's face for beauty. She is so intoxicating--her every strand of wild hair brilliantly captured in Edmond Richard's dusky Haxan-ish photography; her face wreathed in spiderweb lines like a cracked painting--that she seems to pull out some doting delight from deep within Sir John's sack-and-gout plagued corpulence. One shudders to think the abysmal state of his 'bait and tackle' after this long and bulbous life --though Shakespeare's bawdy double entendres on STDs, cleanliness of drawers, and full chamber pots ("empty the jason")--makes sure we do.

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)
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 of some kind of Ennio Morricone experimental 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.

On the other hand, there's that battle scene, justly celebrated, which Lavagnino scores with wordless female chanting and military drums, so that it becomes an ominous liturgy heralding the giallo eeriness to come in following years. 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 something far nobler-- an in-between recognition of war's necessity for man's esteem and to sate a the eternal masculine need to aggress, and a sad realizing of mortal frailty. In other words, it's not a head-shaking "what a waste" dove polemic or a chest-thumping hawk call, but something far nobler, for it's a nobility 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 having such an ability to thicken the blood and he would otherwise be a coward, for it makes the brain "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/the bender must end. A wild free-for-all, it's over in a flash, followed by months of recovery and doctor probing. 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. 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, by shame and dread's grips book-ended. We only have the evidence we must have a blast, left around like cryptic clues--the vacuum cleaner roaring the hours away, inches from our head on the carpet (true story), or the stove left on, a pot of pasta reduced to scorched resin, a smoldering cigarette consuming half the couch, or merely the patient DVD menu, black bruises and missing or bent eyeglasses, the bodies of the moaning wounded like unfinished meals left to rot at table '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.

Me, I could only quietly convulse on the floor, as 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. That part was not fun. 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.

But old Jack Falstaff, as with Macbeth before him in 1998, him I can still abide. 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 camea 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).

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 - or something) 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. 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 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 both on 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.

"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 if not now to suffer, soon will. 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, so we can suddenly take them as our own. 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 so far out-of-character moments that major stars 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 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.

Each new viewing then becomes all the clearer and the Criterion commentary track by James Naremore is 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. 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, for we have heard the chimes, man. All things must end - and if we're lucky they end in an Ativan IV 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 trapped unwary shoes, in his boozy expressionistic poetry art thou art lifted, shoeless... 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 :)


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