Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Orson Welles’s Othello

Is it possible the famed death procession at the finale of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) was  influenced by the prologue to Orson Welles Othello (1952). A newly restored print of Othello is being exhibited at Film Forum in connection with the global “Celebrate Shakespeare 2014” commemorations. You have the same chain of mourners, ascending towards heaven, but shot at angles. The angles are the key element in Welles interpretation since they show the distorted lens through which jealousy views the world. Even if Bergman never saw the film, this is a world of archetypes. Bergman and Welles were drawing from the same well. Iago’s (Michael MacLiammoir) words to Roderigo (Robert Coote) about Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) set the parameters of the tone poem Welles is out to create: “He will out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all.”  Welles’s movie is about framing. As suspicion and malignity are inseminated (“the motive-huntin of Motiveless malignity,” is what Coleridge famously wrote about the play), the camera frantically cross cuts between Iago and Othello. The crowds of soldiers appear on the ramparts, tiny figures overlooking a turbulent sea and then as oddly placed spectators looking down at the unfolding tragedy through a porthole in a roof. At the end Othello’s face will be framed in darkness. As the infernal logic of the tragedy plays out, Othello overhears as Iago baits Cassio (Michael Laurence) on. Then the camera turns to Othello, a grand creature, characterized by what Cassio calls “a free and open nature,” who in the beginning dominated auspicious archways—now reduced to a sad pair of eyes. The ultimate piece of framing is of course the cage in which Iago will eventually be hoisted. Welles inundated the landscape with shadows and it’s probably one of the major faults of the film. Love is never really established amidst all the omens of death, but there’s one curiosity and that’s the  countervailing images of sky against which Shakespeare’s characters are profiled. Like the tiny figures on the battlements, it creates a feeling of perspective that momentarily allows the viewer to step away from the tragedy occurring down below.

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