Thursday, September 3, 2015

#566: Arabian Nights

1974, TSPDT Rank #861

Although it was made as the final film in Pasolini's Trilogy of Life (following The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales), Arabian Nights carries a much different tone, with the overt crudeness and bawdiness of the previous two films replaced by a more contemplative and poetic atmosphere. The film follows a loose framework through which a few selected stories from The One Thousand and One Nights are interspersed at a leisurely, flowing pace. All of the stories that Pasolini selected for the film have a defined erotic bent, but similar to Pasolini's approach in the other two films in the trilogy, sex is not particularly sensationalized or eroticized. Instead, it is treated as a part of life which was once more natural and innocent - although the mood of this particular film is less celebratory than the others (particularly The Decameron), and most of the tales end on a note of tragedy. In a different sense, this film shows Pasolini celebrating Africa and the Middle East as the birthplace of humanity - with the beautiful cinematography often lingering on visuals of characters within hypnotic landscapes, which at times seem to bear the full weight of the trials experienced by the characters. As usual, Pasolini employed non-professional actors for this production, and their performances in the film are suitably simple and naturalistic. The film carries a distinctive air of quiet timelessness not present in the trilogy's previous two installments, and overall it comes off the most meaningful and effective of the three films - even if it veers considerably from the intentions that Pasolini originally had for the trilogy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

#565: Marnie

1964, TSPDT Rank #338

After the release of his 1963 film, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock's reputation as a filmmaker quickly went downhill and never completely returned until years after his death - although Francois Truffaut's 1967 book detailing a series of interviews with the master helped to spark the beginnings of countless critical reappraisals. Nevertheless, Marnie was not well received by audiences or critics at the time, and seemed to signal to the world that Hitchcock was finally losing his touch. Today, public and critical opinion regarding Marnie is generally the complete opposite, with the film now being considered a crucial part of Hitchcock's pantheon of masterpieces - despite being a notch below well-established classics like Psycho or Vertigo. Tippi Hedren's portrayal of an icy and disturbed, yet strikingly beautiful, woman is perfectly offset by Sean Connery's unbridled performance as her suave yet primally frustrated husband. Promoted as an erotic thriller at the time, the way that Hitchcock portrays sex in this film is blunt and uninviting - nowhere near as erotic as earlier films like North By Northwest or Vertigo, despite its heightened boldness. In fact, this might be one of the first major thrillers to incorporate psychoanalytic themes, even if the script's approach to these themes may seem somewhat dated and inaccurate to today's audiences. In any case, audiences in the 1960s were not receptive to Hitchcock's attempts at probing the human psyche, or the many ingenious set pieces and striking use of colors (particularly red) employed in this film. Marnie, however, turned out to be just as influential on the thriller genre as any of Hitchcock's earlier classics, and has justly earned its current reputation as a masterful psychosexual thriller.

#564: Othello

Directed by: ORSON WELLES
1952, TSPDT Rank #626

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see a new print of Beatrice Welles' 1992 restoration of this film at a local cinema, and decided to go despite having never seen the film before because of my qualms about the restored version - for which Welles had the original score replaced with a re-recording, re-edited numerous scenes, and had much of the original dubbing (which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in a contemporaneous essay about the restoration, is typical of dubbing practices in European films of the 1950s) redone by new voice actors. I went into this screening with an open mind, and despite being blown away by the film's raw power and breathtaking cinematography, it was hard to shake the feeling that the overall feel of the film was just not right. The revisionist work done on the soundtrack was very noticeable and overt, and much of the editing seemed choppy and made little sense. I have been studying "incomplete" Orson Welles films like The Lady of Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin (multiple versions) for years, and even so, I had never seen one that felt this disjointed. I decided to wait to write a post on the film until I was able to see the original version - which was only available briefly on Criterion Laserdisc in the mid-'90s, until Beatrice Welles forced it out of circulation so that her restoration would be the only available version of the film. Now that I've finally seen the original version, I can say with confidence that it flows much better than the "restored" version, and stands as a definite high-water mark alongside Welles' other output of the time period. The original score is truly magnificent, despite the supposedly sub-par recording conditions which caused it to be scrapped for the restoration, and it stands with the score of The Third Man as a work of unique brilliance. However, Welles' powerful artistic vision still shines through in both versions, despite the restoration's numerous shortcomings. 

When audiences saw Orson Welles' Othello in the early '50s, it was immediately doomed to be compared to Lawrence Oliver's Shakespeare adaptations, which were wildly popular at the time as well as much more faithful to the theatrical tradition that Olivier, Welles, and Shakespeare all came from. Orson Welles, on the other hand, had been out of favor with Hollywood ever since the turbulent production of his follow-up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and by the time of Othello, he had taken to making films in Europe - away from the influence of the Hollywood system that had mangled The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady of Shanghai. The making of Othello took place over a three-year period, with many interruptions and less than ideal conditions, but the end result was a visionary reimagining of the Shakespeare play that revitalized the source material by skirting a purist approach and instead experimenting with new ways to translate Shakespeare to the screen. First, Welles cut the play down from approximately three hours to just over 90 minutes - in effect boiling the dramatic material down to its essential elements to allow for a taut cinematic narrative. He also employed strikingly moody film-noir cinematography and a dazzling usage of editing to translate much of Shakespeare's theatrical language into the predominantly visual language of cinema. However, as was the case with many of Welles' films, audiences of the time were not receptive to his innovations, and generally found his approach to Shakespeare strange and off-putting. This, along with the noticeably low-budget circumstances of the production and the lack of good distribution for the film, caused Othello to fail at the box-office and suffer in the eyes of audiences and critics alike. The 1992 "restoration" of the film finally made it accessible to audiences again, but for the foreseeable future, it will likely remain difficult for most people to see the film as Welles originally intended.