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Magician Might Be Orson Welles 101 but It’s Still a Treat

If you’re already at least a moderate fan of all-around rogue genius Orson Welles, you probably don’t need Chuck Workman’s documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.

But since when was moviegoing about need? Sturdy and rudimentary, Magician may be Welles 101, but it’s dotted liberally with TV and radio clips of the famously loquacious auteur talking, talking, and doing more talking — and how could anybody with ears and a brain resist that buttery voice, spinning out clause-laden sentences that take more twists and turns than the streets of Venice but always end, somehow, in a place that’s ravishingly articulate?

Workman traces Welles’s story from his precocious, troubled youth to his audacious stint at the Gate Theatre in Dublin to his formation, with John Houseman, of the Mercury Theatre. Magician also breaks down the troubles Welles faced throughout his career, including the heartbreak of having one film after another — The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil — sabotaged by unimaginative studios.

But it also makes the case for Welles as the father of independent filmmaking: If not for his resourcefulness, we wouldn’t have pictures like the marvelous (if, owing to distribution woes, too little seen) Shakespearean dream Chimes at Midnight.

Welles may be best known for his brash debut, Citizen Kane, but Magician suggests, rightly, that Kane put just a small fraction of Welles’s gifts to use. Even if his career sometimes faltered, in the end he lived up to the seductive, bamboozling conviction of that voice.

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Orson Welles’s Tattered, Glorious Othello Returns


The Venn diagram overlap of Shakespeare with the elaborate scrap-fabric quilts pieced together by early American settlers is Orson Welles’s Othello, a film pulled together from everything and nothing. This Othello took nearly four years to make: Welles began planning it in the summer of 1948, and it debuted at Cannes in 1952. It was filmed in fits and starts, in at least four locales in two countries, as Welles’s finances were alternately drained dry and replenished. Several Desdemonas came and went. Because so much of the movie had been shot on the fly, at different times in different places by different cameramen, Welles assembled it largely in the editing room, cleverly stitching one sequence to the next to impart the illusion of continuity. Othello came together in defiance of any unifying principle beyond the scrappy vision of its director. It’s a work of seat-of-the-pants grandeur.

Even if Othello isn’t one of Welles’s greatest films — on my own list, it would trail The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and Citizen Kane — the stark beauty of its compositions alone make it a standout. Welles locates the humanity in Shakespeare’s characters by finding the proper visual setting for each: A rejected wife is dwarfed by the vast, chilly emptiness of the marital bedroom; an embittered underling schemes and fumes as sinister black flags ripple in the wind around him, as ragged and tatty as the hair of witches. How did Welles take such a seemingly delirious clash of visual patterns — the slender, pointed windows of Venice, the all-work, no-play parapet of a mighty Moroccan fortress, the vertigo-inducing swirl of mosaic tile floors, and more varieties of iron grillwork than you’d think mankind could dream up — and synthesize them into such an expressive, visually vibrant whole? That’s one of the great mysteries of Welles’s genius, and a splendid new, velvety-crisp restoration of Othello at Film Forum (through May 8) is as good an excuse as any to bask in it.

As Welles himself noted in a wiggy ramble of a documentary he made in 1978, Filming Othello, the love story at the heart of this adaptation isn’t that between the jealous Moor, Othello (played by Welles), and his young white bride, Desdemona (the luminous but stiff French-Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier). It’s Othello and his duplicitous lieutenant, Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir), who share the strongest bond. Othello warms to Iago’s counsel, eagerly buying the wretch’s pure and inexplicably evil malarkey. Yet when his wife asks him to pardon the right-hand man he’s dismissed for drunkenness and disorderly conduct (Cassio, played as a big blond galoot by Michael Laurence), Othello barely seems to hear her. Cloutier’s Desdemona is a pitiable creature, all right, but she’s too wispy to hold our attention. Welles, rather than stressing the dark-skin, white-skin contrast of this interracial marriage, sets his Othello in a man’s world, where women are ornamental, and necessary to a degree, but men are more interesting to listen to.

For that equation to work, you need an Iago with the slippery grace of a newt, and MacLiammóir fits the bill: His slithery demeanor notwithstanding, he’s as seductive as he is repellent, fanning out his increasingly resplendent untruths like a peacock’s tail. Othello would rather not believe the accusations Iago levels at Desdemona, yet he can hardly look away. As Welles plays him, he’s an innocent locked tight in the body of a man, an emotional child who’s so entranced with and intimidated by women that he’d rather just avoid them altogether; men, on the other hand, are easy to decode and easy to believe. Once he sets his meaty jaw against Desdemona, it’s set for life.

This is a fairly recessive performance for Welles, despite his physical robustness; he’s more vigorous when he’s listening, absorbing Iago’s slow-spreading poison, than when delivering his own lines. “He never acts,” wrote the critic Eric Bentley, “he is photographed,” a line that stung Welles for years. Bentley’s words may have been cruel, but he was onto something: The movie’s sense of movement, its restless vitality, is the real star, and that’s where Welles truly makes his presence known. The picture’s editing is willfully jagged in some places and silky-smooth in others, but it always strides forward with purpose. In Filming Othello, Welles explains that, because the filming was so erratic, MacLiammóir might begin a line in Venice and, in a segue finessed via the Moviola, finish it in Morocco. But neither you nor I would know just by watching. Nor would you notice that the armor worn by the movie’s soldiers is made of flattened sardine cans; money can’t buy that kind of bright, shiny audacity.

“The cinema has no boundaries,” Welles once told theater critic and journalist Kenneth Tynan. “It’s a ribbon of dream.” But Welles knew from hard experience that a film, and a dream, could be sliced to shreds: The Magnificent Ambersons had been taken from him and cut by the studio, RKO, before he could finish it. By the time of Othello, he’d learned to hang on more tightly, refusing to be undone by circumstance, by lack of funds, by others’ failure of imagination. Othello, made piecemeal, is a movie held together by sheer will. The stitches are invisible; the patchwork glory of the result is hard to miss.

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CHEER UP, CHARLIE

“I remain just one thing, and one thing only, and that is a clown,” Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin said. That’s about as loose a statement as the Tramp’s own trousers, considering that Chaplin is one of the most recognizable figures in movie history to this day. This week, Film Forum’s new series, “The Tramp 100,” celebrates the centennial of his first appearance on screen in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). Thirteen features span Chaplin’s career, from the boot-gormandizing high jinks in The Gold Rush and Hitler-impersonating in the controversial Great Dictator to the transcendent beauty of City Lights. Shorts programs focus on Chaplin’s time at the Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National studios, where his character was immortalized in countless vignettes. See the icon looking as spiffy as ever in all-new restorations.

Mondays-Sundays, 1 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 5, 5:20 p.m. Starts: Jan. 1. Continues through Jan. 7, 2014

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Venice Update: Nicolas Cage and the Misery of Joe

As at most festivals, screenings at Venice are preceded by a recorded message asking everyone to turn off their cell phones. A very cultured-sounding lady delivers this request first in Italian and then in English. She caps off the English version with the words, “Thank you for your collaboration.”

My what? But then, watching movies is sort of a collaborative process, a give-and-take between the viewer and what the filmmakers have crafted. And sometimes the process demands more of us than we’d prefer to give. David Gordon Green’s Joe–based on a novel by Larry Brown and showing in competition here–is an ugly little movie, supposedly redeemed by its ultimate sweetness. I’m not buying it. Nicolas Cage stars as the Joe of the title, a man who makes his living killing trees. Yes, that’s right–he runs an outfit that hacks away at live but useless trees with “juice hatchets” filled with poison; that way, they can be taken down and replaced with strong, profitable pines. Unlike the Samuel Beckett-meets-Mutt and Jeff line painters of Prince Avalanche, Joe and his crew are subtracting something from the world, not adding to it.

See also: Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is Lightning From the Heavens

Joe is a rough guy–he’s done a stint in the pen, and he’s got a temper on him, though he’s learned to control it. But he’s not a totally bad fellow, and he has a soft spot for the bright, ambitious kid who approaches him one day asking for work. Fifteen-year-old Gary–played by Tye Sheridan, who also appeared recently in Mud–has an abusive drunk for a father, and even by the standards of this rural area, where life is hard to begin with, the kid sure is in a mess. In the movie’s best sequence, Joe and Gary take a little field trip, and Joe schools the kid in such essentials as putting on “a cool face,” which involves getting in touch with one’s inner pain and then attempting some version of a smile.

It’s the only moment where Cage really loosens up. As much of a relief it is to see this extraordinarily gifted actor play something other than a witch hunter, sorcerer, or Ghost Rider, Joe doesn’t give him much to work with. The picture is self-consciously brutal; it really labors to make the point that life sure ain’t easy for these hardscrabble folk. Green gives us a world of barking dogs, saggy couches, and pilly flannel shirts. There’s even a local whorehouse, where the sullen girls sit in a dark room watching TV, waiting for customers. At one point, Joe drops by the home of a friend who is skinning a deer–Joe takes up the knife and begins sawing expertly at the bloody carcass, just because he can.

The whole thing makes Winter’s Bone look as cheerful as a Li’l Abner strip, and there’s something distastefully condescending about it. Joe‘s single redeeming element is Sheridan’s performance: He’s a charismatic presence, but there’s some weight there, too. He succeeds in playing a person, not a sociological specimen. He wins you over to his side, even if you find yourself resisting everything else about the movie. In other words, he makes you his collaborator.

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Venice Unites Rap and Shakespeare, Shakily

Composer-lyricist Matt Sax loves hip-hop. He also loves Shakespeare. These enthusiasms unite—not always smoothly—in Venice, a rap and pop musical loosely tied to the tragedy of Othello, but more concerned with post-9/11 America.

A terrorist attack 20 years ago has thrust the citizens of Venice (which does not seem remotely Italian) into an era of corporate-sponsored martial law and a strict demarcation between the safe zone, where the elites live, and the city, where the underclass survives. Now a proletarian leader, also named Venice (Haaz Sleiman), has plans for civic reunification and a romantic reunion with his childhood sweetheart, Willow (Jennifer Damiano). Unfortunately, his scheming half-brother, Markos (the ever-excellent Leslie Odom Jr. in ultrasleaze mode), has other ideas.

Sax has scripted a plum part for himself as narrator, the Clown MC. Under Eric Rosen’s direction, the shifts between the Clown’s expository narrative, the dialogue, and the songs are sometimes awkward, the recourse to Shakespeare’s plot unilluminating. (And the character of Venice, the Othello stand-in, remains an unfortunate cipher.) But the songs are never less than propulsive, the performances committed, and the overall energy infectious. And all this without a single gondola.

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GHOST STORIES

Ghostface Killah may be the de facto star of Twelve Reasons to Die, the veteran Wu-Tang rapper’s 10th solo album, but its musical visionary is the name above the title: 30-something producer Adrian Younge, who also shares the billing on tonight’s concert. Although Ghost crafted an intricate, cinematic plot, set in 1960s Italy, that finds his Tony Starks alter ego battling a crime family so he can become Ghostface, it’s Younge’s giallo-soul backing soundtrack that steals the show. In recent years, the producer has reunited Philly soul singers the Delfonics (“La-La (Means I Love You)”) and assembled the soundtrack for Blaxploitation spoof flick Black Dynamite, but it’s in between Ghostface’s smooth and taut musings on torture and death wishes where Younge conjures his inner Ennio to great effect, heightening the drama along the way. With Venice Dawn and William Hart.

Mon., May 13, 8 p.m., 2013

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Nicolas Pereda: Here Are His Stories

Between 2007 and 2010, Nicolas Pereda wrote and directed four features, bashed out an hour-long, installation-style video piece, and made a short film during what must have counted as his spare time. Often, that’s the schedule of an artist on a hobbyhorse (or else a factory line). But Pereda has taken this relentless work ethic and pushed it to an abstractly exhilarating new place.

Unseeable outside short engagements and film festivals (including Cannes and Venice), Pereda’s fast-amassing oeuvre gets the retrospective treatment at Anthology in a one-week run starting Friday. You can forget turning to Netflix afterward; the director doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet. (And press reports seem to disagree how old the Mexico City–born twentysomething is, precisely—though Anthology says 27.)

Pereda’s four full-lengths aren’t just linked by their narrative concern with Mexico’s contemporary poor; most of them also star a mother-son dyad played by actors Teresa Sanchez and Gabino Rodriguez. And in every single film except Where Are Their Stories?—Pereda’s impressively assured debut—their characters bear the actors’ real-life first names.

Yet the works don’t serve as sequels or prequels to one another. If these characters are always engaged in acts of subsistence-maintenance, they are still easily differentiated. Soldier-boy Gabino, from Pereda’s latest, Summer of Goliath, is a sadistic prick compared to the sweet kid in Juntos who just wants to find his dog and cool down the scalding-hot water coming out of his tap. The films’ Mother Teresa also evolves. Merely put upon by the lazy, house-mover version of Gabino in Perpetuum Mobile, she spends Goliath cursing out and fighting with her ex-husband’s suspected objects of affection (male and female).

You can’t help but see the populist impulse in Pereda’s work, as when his Godard-y “opening” credits crack in way late (after the 20-minute mark) during Stories as a rhythmic surprise to remind you that a) yes, you are watching a movie, and b) why aren’t there more movies about the poor, anyway? Thankfully, such noble concerns avoid trending toward uncomplicated sentimentality. The range of his characters—cheats, pranksters, layabouts, and honest hardworking types—makes it clear that Pereda really wants to investigate the margins he can’t stop filming.

Influences from the entire International Slow-Pace Cinema School are naturally operating throughout, but Pereda has some innovations. The is-it-doc-or-not? language of Goliath will remind some of Miguel Gomes’s brilliantly indirect Our Beloved Month of August. But with Pereda, the answer is knowable; his filmography is littered with self-referential clues. (Hint: If attending both, see Juntos before Perpetuum Mobile. And don’t miss the early Pereda short Interview With the Earth, which screens at Anthology alongside Stories.) And anyone who saw Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere as a triumph of technique over substance should check out this director’s way with a deliberate wind-up.

The least satisfying screening in a movie-theater context is probably the one-hour video piece “All Things Were Now Overtaken by Silence,” which is more a documentary about Pereda’s crew lighting the staged recitation of a poem than an actual reading of the work. Still, if contemplating going all in, you should see that, too. This is one of those weeks when the tax-deductible, ticket-discount-granting membership at Anthology feels like a purely selfish investment.

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Senso

Dir. Luchino Visconti (1954).
Visconti’s great, over-the-top prelude to The Leopard, an ultra operatic melodrama set in mid 19th Century Venice may be the most sumptuous Technicolor movie of the 1950s. To add to the madness, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles collaborated on the script.

Mon., Dec. 27, 1:30 p.m.; Tue., Dec. 28, 6 p.m., 2010

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The Idealist and the Hot Dog Cart in The Happy Poet

Fresh from a showing in Venice, the Austin-bred SXSW pet The Happy Poet is returning to its native shores a little worldlier for the wear. For Paul Gordon, the writer, director, and star of this wry, ambivalent take on wish-fulfilling romantic comedies, a flashy international premiere is a fitting development for a sweet, stealthy film about creating meaning in your life (and your work) in a relentlessly mercenary world. As Bill, a soporific MFA washout who reinvents himself as the proprietor of an all-organic, vegetarian food cart, Gordon explores the tenability of pushing handmade goods in a pre-fab world. An introvert forced into huckster mode, Bill sets up shop in a sun-kissed stretch of Austin park and refuses to give the people what they want: hot dogs. A few supporters (including Jonny Mars as a wily opportunist, Chris Doubek as a local mooch, and Liz Fisher as a would-be love interest) hang around Bill and his cart, encouraging the recovering artist to begin with a brand. Off-handed and yet quite artfully observed, The Happy Poet‘s winsome deadpan offsets its skewering of class and sustainability issues, right through to a tricky ending that, like Bill himself, may not be what it seems.

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Al Pacino in the Park–The Merchant of Venice, plus The Winter’s Tale

We know comparatively little about what Shakespeare’s audience actually saw and heard, a gap in our knowledge that offers both advantages and dangers: Actors and directors need to mine the published texts for clues, but also get an enhanced permission to make free with them. The authentic tradition disappeared when England fell into civil war; attempts to recapture it amount to educated guesswork. There are very few points about which one can say with certainty how Shakespeare’s company staged a given moment or what shadings they read into a particular speech. The plays’ greatness makes the challenge to solve their mysteries that much more exciting. Every performance of Shakespeare is an adventure that may supply some startling revelation.

The Public’s two New York Shakespeare Festival productions in Central Park this year, The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale, are performed in alternating rep, with only two leading players in each show—Al Pacino (Shylock) and Lily Rabe (Portia) in Merchant; Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Leontes) and Linda Emond (Hermione) in Winter’s Tale—not doing double duty. This already gives the season an advantage over previous Park summers. The actors can sharpen their skills on the contrast from play to play and director to director; Michael Greif has staged Winter’s Tale and Daniel Sullivan Merchant.

Both productions are uneven, eccentric mixes of the standardized and the quirky. Neither, probably, will be the great Shakespearean experience of your life. Both lapse, intermittently, into one or another imposed assumption about what’s “correct” for Shakespeare, for today’s sensibilities, for the taste of Park audiences. But such agendas weigh down virtually all contemporary Shakespeare stagings; these two, by skilled hands who’ve traveled this road before, at least never wallow in misguided assumptions. You always feel their basic commitment is to the play, not to somebody’s notion of what it’s supposed to be.

In both cases, as a result, the play is served. If you don’t get any deep inner light shed on The Winter’s Tale, you go away having seen The Winter’s Tale. If you exit the Park with the unresolved problems of The Merchant of Venice scratching at your brain, well, no production has ever resolved them; a production that makes you confront them is a success.

Pacino’s Shylock—which I realize is all you really wanted to know about—puts the problem squarely stage center. People have fretted for centuries over how seriously to take Shylock; Pacino’s performance nails the source of their discomfort. Shakespeare’s Shylock is a villain, not a hero, a man thirsty for revenge and unkind to those around him. Shakespeare first gives him strong justifications, both personal and social, for his vindictiveness, then adds the blow of the double robbery. Venice hates Shylock, Antonio spits on him, Lorenzo steals his daughter and his money. Even more startlingly, Shakespeare makes Shylock’s nasty remarks articulate solid truths. Nonetheless, he is a comic bogeyman, in a comedy; he was played so until 1740, when Charles Macklin revealed the role’s dignified side and became a star. By the early 20th century, Shylock was virtually seen as the play’s tragic hero, a concept as far from the text as the crude comic stereotype that Macklin supplanted.

Pacino squeezes these contradictory readings into one: His Shylock is a vaudeville ethnic caricature who is also a tragic hero, not a rich, powerful conniver but a stooped, whiny, small-timer whom it’s easier to imagine keeping a mom-and-pop corner store than floating a loan for three thousand ducats. Though a born loser, like many earlier Pacino characters, he has a lion’s heart, with claws to match. Under the helpless, bespectacled cartoon, Pacino unveils the implacable fury. The wearily dogged, buzzsaw monotone in which he repeats, “I will have my bond” in the trial scene is likely to slither through a lot of theatergoers’ memories in years to come.

Sullivan’s staging surrounds Pacino with a businesslike world of busy-ness, itself often enclosed by the openwork teller’s cages of Mark Wendland’s metallic set, a maze of concentric barriers. People cross and recross the stage, bound nowhere we know about. Byron Jennings’s grave, gray, guilt-raddled Antonio is, like Shylock, among the few still points in this hectic Venice. Another, for a brief moment, is Max Wright’s doting, doddering Prince of Aragon. Instead of the customary glittering sophisticate, Lily Rabe makes Portia, intriguingly, a rawboned, sheltered, country heiress, nicely matched to Hamish Linklater’s charmingly gawky Bassanio, and ably shepherded by Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s crisp Nerissa.

Not everyone comes off so well: The Lorenzo-Jessica relationship, a much-disputed area of the text, registers as blurry; Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Launcelot Gobbo seems to be trying out a string of unrelated notions. But the major scenes (including a creepy silent depiction of Shylock’s forced baptism) rise up to put the play’s big, troubling questions firmly before you, with Pacino’s Shylock heading the list.

Michael Greif’s Winter’s Tale seems altogether sunnier even at its darkest, in part because under his guidance, seemingly, the same actors who grasp specifics for Sullivan tend to generalize. Jesse L. Martin makes Gratiano, in Merchant, a distinct individual; his Polixenes here is just a nice guy with a crown and a quick temper. Jean-Baptiste’s Polina spouts great rhetoric, but her love for both her husband and her queen feels rhetorical, too. Emond’s gracious, stately Hermione seems to be aiming for statue-dom, while Linklater’s Autolycus struggles to milk laughs from hangdog looks and ambling around in his skivvies. Wendland’s set, too, seems unpurposive, cluttered with ineffective effects.

Two actors fare better: Santiago-Hudson, slowly building and banking the fires of Leontes’s jealousy, reaches a gripping peak in the oracle scene, then trumps it with his sober remorse in the last act. And as Camillo, the lord who betrays both kings’ unjust commands, Jennings creates a figure wholly distinct from his queasy Antonio, with a blend of dash and toughness that actually resembles, unlike most modern performances of such roles, Shakespeare’s idea of a noble courtier. Their force supplies the chilling effect that, even in a summertime park, Winter’s Tale needs.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com