The American streaming service MUBI (otherwise unavailable in South Africa) has launched a special platform it calls its Film Schools Program, to which anyone in South Africa can sign up for free, and to which they upload one new movie each day that stays on the platform for thirty days. To watch any of the movies is free as well, so effectively the only cost to you is the cost of your internet service to stream these movies. The selection comprises movies from many different countries, from a number of filmmakers I’ve never heard of, and includes old forgotten titles, new festival favourites in need of a larger audience, classic masterpieces, popular favourites, and probably will cover a few other sectors of the moviegoing market in the future. Due to a number of personal priorities, I haven’t had the time yet to watch any of the titles (or to update this blog much) until last night, when I saw the first of the films I’ve chosen to see, one that’s available for 21 more days, and it was a major artistic event in my viewing life, one that would have been worth even a considerable cost had I had to pay for it — Orson Welles’s mighty 1951 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello.
When I first mentioned Welles on this blog — writing of my experience of first seeing his earlier adaptation of Macbeth as one of my favourite movies of all time — I tried to express the wonder I underwent at experiencing the “excessively beautiful and hypnotically fascinating work” of something that appeared to have so many technical shortcomings. Welles was shooting under the circumstances of an early kind of independent filmmaking — what one had to try to get by with, absent the efficiency, power, and financial security of a studio project, back when studios ruled the cinematic world — and his production of Othello was beset with what sounds like even greater difficulties: it was shot piece by piece, way out of the dramatic order of the scenes, over four years, and in a wide array of different locations. Shots were cut together into scenes with seams as conspicuous and cumbersome as giant zippers — two actors talking to each other in a scene may not have even been filmed in the same year or in the same country — and most of the dialogue was dubbed (and hardly synchronised) onto the soundtrack long after the filming ended. The scenes move haphazardly from one location to another so that I could hardly keep track of where anyone was as each scene started, and, in all, Welles’s production of Othello does basically nothing to make the plot or the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play any clearer to any viewer who watches in hope of understanding it more easily.
Yet, if, like me, you seek essence, rather than clarity, in Shakespearean adaptations, Othello is the very greatest work I can recommend to you (omitting those I haven’t seen), right along with Welles’s Macbeth. “Excessively beautiful” is as apt a description of it, as is “hypnotic” — the very word came to me last night as I sat watching Welles’s billowing shadows and agonising close-ups. The text is in shreds, because Welles knew, from experience, that the might of Shakespeare’s tragedy could withstand whatever heavy edits he imposed on it, and he’s cut the drama down so much that what could take close to four hours in a full performance is given here in about 90 minutes. I know the play well, and often enjoy Shakespeare’s deep indulgence of his characters’ long expressions of their feelings and ideas, the gradual unfolding of his drama, and the deliberate pace at which the play approaches what is ultimately an inevitability. Welles’s film flies by, yet holds with nearly a masochistic patience during the moments of anguished expression of harsh and furious emotion. The final scene between Othello and Desdemona is as slow as a funeral march, yet sharp in its fierce psychological evocations and even metaphysical contemplation.
There are reasons some may choose not to watch this Othello — an aversion to black-and-white movies or to Shakespearean texts, the preference of movies that depict psychological torment rather than evoke it harrowingly, et cetera — that I would hope can be overcome. What I won’t dismiss objections to, and can hardly defend, is the performance practice common until very recently (as late as 2013, Johan Botha participated in it in his performance in Verdi’s Otello with the Metropolitan Opera) to play Othello in blackface, which was seen as essential for a white star to play a necessarily black lead. Welles, thankfully, doesn’t go for a full-on blackening as Laurence Olivier did in his 1965 film adaptation, starring himself and Maggie Smith, but a kind of bronzing of his face and neck, to varying degrees throughout the film. Probably the make-up suffered as much as everything else from continuity errors, which is why he sometimes appears darker than at other times, but often shadows and light are employed to dizzying heights of artistic effect, throwing only his face, or sometimes only a part of his face, into harsh relief while the rest of the frame is in darkness (as in the image at the top of this post), and it appears bedsheet-white. The issue, as always, calls to mind the hard inequities that result in very few actors of colour ever being groomed into and selected for prestigious leading roles, and, for many viewers, the illuminatingly pained expressions of Welles’s monologues, the shattering power and beauty of his agonised images, and the vast intellectual and philosophical force of his filming are not sufficient to overcome the acute pains of injustices keenly felt while watching the film. Sociologically, culturally, even politically, many beloved artefacts such as Welles’s Othello must take their place in the legacy of racism. Artistically, emotionally, and psychologically, however, it defies conventional commentary and straightforward evaluation.