Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Orson Welles | 1hr 59min

To faithfully adapt a Shakespeare play into a film as Orson Welles did several times throughout his career obviously entails a strong affinity with the Bard’s rhetorical devices and archetypes. To lift individual scenes from several plays and rearrange them into a compelling study of a relatively minor character requires something even greater though – a profound understanding of narrative structure as art, reinvented across centuries and media forms while retaining the same, core principles. As such, the once-clean divisions of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and history plays are melded together under Welles’ inspired reconstruction, Chimes at Midnight, offering a nuanced depth to Sir John Falstaff, the drunk, buffoonish knight who serves as comedic relief in Henry IV, Part I, Part II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Falstaff may not be the only side character that Shakespeare imbued with remarkable complexity, but he is clearly that one that Welles was most drawn towards, and it isn’t hard to see why. As a gluttonous, indulgent man who surrounded himself with powerful people and seemed to live in permanent debt, the parallels are clear, making the reason behind the casting doubly apparent. Although it is said that Welles went on a diet to slim down for the part, one wouldn’t guess it from the huge mass he carries around onscreen, only further emphasised by his trademark low angles that see him dominate most of the frame. From those low vantage points, Falstaff looks as if he is on top of the world, though such a steep incline only makes his descent in the final act land with greater force.

Orson Welles is said to have slimmed down for this party, but he still carries an immense weight on screen, and his trademark low angles only emphasise that.

The enormous depth of field that Welles innovated over twenty years earlier in Citizen Kane continues to emerge in his ravishing black-and-white cinematography here as well, bringing a razor-sharp focus to immaculately staged character interactions layered deep into the background. With the camera sitting so close to the ground in those abundant low angles as well, the overcast skies of England’s countryside and the vaulted ceilings of its cavernous castles become daunting backdrops to majestic scenes of royal power plays.

Three levels of depth in this frame creating a quietly impressive composition of faces.
Always a precise framing of the horizon, here right at the bottom of the shot to emphasise the overcast skies hanging over these executioners.

Centuries of tradition weigh heavy on the nobles who dominate these spaces, visually smothering them in doorways and corridors which open into vast, empty caverns. There, sunrays pour through the high windows cut into the roughhewn walls, throwing harsh shadows across faces and casting blocks of light on the stone floor. These castle interiors make for an especially daunting set piece when King Henry IV eventually passes away, as Welles sets his camera far back in a distant long shot from the throne where he slumps, before gradually trickling a mass of robed men into the room like dark spectres waiting to carry him away.

Cavernous halls in King Henry’s castle illuminated by the natural light pouring through high windows – an absolute feat of black-and-white cinematography.

This is not the environment where the King’s son, Prince Hal, is terribly comfortable though, and neither is Falstaff for that matter. The Boar’s Head tavern is where they would much rather spend their time, drinking, dancing, and poking fun at the King. Outside, the long, spindly trees of the forest that obstruct Welles’ compositions formally mirror the decorative arrangements of tall spears and flagpoles back at the castle, and in this double-sided visual motif of court and country, a formal divide is drawn between the two domains. If the castle is a building of mighty architecture and cavernous rooms, then this inn of drunkards and harlots is its opposite, as in place of high, arched ceilings Welles clutters his mise-en-scène with low rafters, rustic wooden beams, and bawdy crowds.

The Boar’s Head Tavern stands in complete contrast to the castle in its clutter and low rafters.
Another formal contrast, though this time between the trees of the forest and the spears of soldiers, both obstructing frames.

These are Falstaff’s people, and this is his kingdom, catering to his pleasures and humouring his boastful exaggerations that quickly turn two bandits he fended off on the road into eleven. His intimate close-ups may not hide his hefty weight, but there is a lightness to his spirit, often booming out across crowds through Welles’ loud, resonant voice. That his best friend, Hal, would ever turn his back on him is far out of the question, and yet the political machinations of the monarchy are not something he is bright enough to wrap his head around.

In case there was any doubt in our minds about Falstaff’s incapability among knights and nobles, the Battle of Shrewsbury arrives at the film’s midpoint to comically underscore his utter incompetence and cowardice. For Welles, it is a majestic triumph of action filmmaking, staging King Henry IV’s forces against the rebels with lines of horses stretching across fields, and blocking tight formations of soldiers in their military units. As they stand at attention, charge across an open field, and hack each other to pieces, one would almost believe they were watching thousands of men, though in truth Welles only had 180 extras to work with, and consequently had to be resourceful with his staging and editing. Even with an incredible depth of field, he still manages to obscure our vision with the fog blowing across the battle, while the fast-paced cutting strikes a fine balance of chaotic frenzy and clear coordination. As chests are pierced with arrows and horses fall to the ground, of course we can’t go without noticing that girthy lump of metal containing Falstaff bumbling through the middle of it all.

Welles is incredibly resourceful with his backdrops, turning what would have been a plain, grey sky background into a fierce shot by lining it with with spears.
One of Welles’ finest moments as a director in his career, recreating the epic Battle of Shrewsbury with what was actually a limited number of extras.

The cowardice of this drunken, foolish knight is rarely so evident as it is here. Not only does he feign death to avoid the fight, but he also stands on the sidelines from afar to watch Hal and the King’s enemy, Hotspur, battle it out, claiming the victory as his own when his friend comes out on top. Falstaff does not fit so simply into Shakespeare’s leading character archetypes of heroes and villains, nor is he even the sort of antihero who cunningly plots his ascent to power. He is totally driven by his own base, hedonistic desires, making his ultimate rejection at the hands of his own friend particularly difficult to grapple with.

As the man Hal once jokingly called a “villainous abominable misleader of youth” comes shambling into the new King’s coronation ceremony expecting a warm reception, it is hard not to feel a twinge of pity for him. For a second time he is branded a “misleader”, though there is no longer any humour in this indictment. All the time we have spent gazing up at Falstaff on his pedestal of privilege makes the high angle we now look down at him from land with even heavier weight, as Welles’ joviality and lust for life crumples into heartbreaking despair within seconds.

A heartbreaking final scene between Hal and Falstaff, separating them by high and low angles that put a great distance between both.

One the other side of this dialogue, King Hal looms over him, framed by the flags, spears, and vaulted ceilings that make up his new domain, far from the Boar’s Head Tavern. If one was to look hard enough, perhaps there might be a trace of regret in his expression, though his face otherwise now rests in an inhumanly cold stare, piercing Falstaff’s soul and exposing his greatest insecurity to the world – his total lack of substance or significance. As he is written in Shakespeare’s works, he is a mere side character, not destined for the spotlight he is given here in Chimes at Midnight, and yet by forcing him into it regardless, Welles peels back the compelling layers of his vapidity. To live as a fool in world of kings, nobles, and conspirators automatically puts one on the back foot, though in Falstaff’s carefree disengagement from their petty affairs altogether, perhaps we can find some unassuming wisdom to his short-lived yet jovial debauchery.

Chimes at Midnight is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 40min

Highly stylised, futuristic visual designs do not always mesh so well with low-budget location shooting, but for a postmodern master of avant-garde cinematic form like Jean-Luc Godard, such delightful incongruity only strengthens his genre deconstructions. Alphaville is his take on film noir, but it is also a science-fiction set in a dystopian city, with hints of George Orwell and German expressionism, as well as the seeds of what would later become 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Why then has it fallen so far by the wayside when considering the widespread reverence held for those pieces of art that influenced it, and which it influenced in turn? Perhaps the answer can be found in Godard’s characteristic dissonance that rejects complete narrative immersion, striving to understand how authoritarianism is represented through the medium of film, rather than any traditional examination of the ideology itself. With that set as his thesis, Alphaville doesn’t just take a stand against artistic and emotional censorship, but rather becomes an act of creative rebellion in its very construction.

With the film’s exterior scenes being shot largely on the streets of Paris at night, it does not take a huge leap for Godard to reimagine its modernist buildings and streets as a futuristic society crawling with shadows and pierced by stark, white lights emanating from neon signs, cars, and streetlamps. This may be an economical choice, but it is also a purposefully stylistic one, turning away from artificial sets in favour of realistic environments that seem both familiar and slightly alien.

The streets of Paris at night become the science-fiction dystopia of Alphaville, with each light radiating an eerie aura and bouncing off the wet pavement. A unique blend of futuristic visual designs and location shooting.
Modern architecture that belongs to both 1960s Paris and Godard’s bureaucratic technocracy – he is endlessly inventive with his location scouting and the way he frames his structures.

Ruling this metropolis is Alpha 60, a Big Brother figure that manifests a menacing, croaky voice paired with a single, circular light, occasionally beaming out from behind whirring fan blades like some mechanical piece of artificial intelligence. Alpha 60 is not our protagonist, but it is essentially our narrator, with its ominous voiceover indoctrinating us into its cold rule of didactic reasoning. Its assertion that Alphaville’s technocracy is founded on logic is absurdly inconsistent with its resistance to questioning, though it is evident that the blind acceptance of rules it demands simply serves to suppress anything vaguely human.

“The acts of man through the centuries will gradually destroy them. I, Alpha 60, I am merely the logical means of this destruction.”

Alpha 60’s design is a prototype for HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not a surprise given Stanley Kubrick’s praise for this film.
Expressionistic lighting doesn’t need to be complicated – a single, hanging light bulb does the trick here on this stairwell, swinging back and forth.

Lemmy Caution is the craggy-faced secret agent from the ‘Outside Countries’ who comes into Alphaville with a mission to end Alpha 60’s reign of tyranny, but in his character design he bears far greater resemblance to a straight-talking, Philip Marlowe-type detective, ripped from the pages of a pulpy Raymond Chandler novel. Paired with this hard-boiled archetype is Anna Karina’s femme fatale, Natacha von Braun, who has lived her life by the rigid rules set by her father, who is also the city’s malevolent creator. To her, words like “love” and “conscience” are completely foreign, both being banned from Alphaville’s dialect that is specifically designed to limit freedom of thought. Upon meeting Lemmy, we can see pieces of his passion bleed into her, destabilising the brittle foundations of Alpha 60’s despotism.

Anna Karina on her run of films with Godard is magnetic as a femme fatale, proving her own versatility through different archetypes and genres.
You have to admire Godard’s ability to pick out these locations as backdrops. A wild, delirious wallpaper pattern to match the narrative.

Like The Big Sleep and so many other film noirs that came before, Alphaville possesses a dizzying plot that lands us at the mercy of a shady world which cannot be fully penetrated, constantly moving two paces ahead of any single character or viewer. Beyond the shadowy city streets, the bright interiors of buildings become havens from this darkness, lining ceilings with rows upon rows of lights caught from low angles that press down upon our characters. As Godard’s handheld camera passes through the modernist architecture in long takes, we acclimate to this fascinating environment of glass elevators and elaborate spiral staircases that simultaneously belong to 1960s Paris and reach into some progressive vision of its future.

Rows of light fixtures from low angles, spiral staircases, glass windows, long corridors, angular geometry – perhaps Godard’s greatest achievement in shooting architecture, crafting a world of harsh modernity.

It is not merely the immediate atmosphere that consumes us in Alphaville though, as Godard goes on to push his rejection of narrative transparency even further with formal cutaways to the Parisian neon street signs spelling out symbols and equations. These limited, inflexible forms of linguistic expression break up scenes like punctuation marks, reminding us of the world beyond Lemmy’s immediate experience, as well as Godard’s own presence in this story as a disturber of its continuity. Similarly, the suspenseful musical theme of accented horns and strings at first simply sits in the background, but each time it is repeated it announces itself just a little bit more, denying us the cadenced resolution we crave. With his trademark jump cuts and direct addresses to the camera topping off his self-aware style, he keeps us constantly living on a layer removed from the story, recognising the artifice of every technique, motif, and archetype that defines this film, and the science-fiction and noir genres at large.

Godard’s cutaways to neon signs display symbols and equations, underlining the sinister system of logic governing this society.

As Lemmy achieves his great victory over Alpha 60 towards the end, shots of unprocessed negative film invert shades of black and white while the city falls apart, its systematic oppression finally being reversed and Godard’s loud, audacious style proclaiming itself within the very fabric of the projected reel. Like his protagonist, he stages his own angry, one-man riot against the stifling limitations imposed upon artists within the old Alphaville, distinctly exerting his creative power as a director, not just a mere observer of events. The citizens’ conditioning to replace questions of “Why?” with firm statements of “Because” is the antithesis of everything he stands for, most of all regarding cinematic convention. It is not enough to simply continue film noir and science fiction traditions, but getting to their reasons for existence by bringing them to our attention and stretching them to their limits is the basis of his playfully wicked experimentations in Alphaville, confidently asserting the inalienable right to imagination and curiosity among all humans, whether they be real or fictional.

Negative film as Alphaville is inverted on itself – a bold stylistic move from Godard.

Alphaville is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965)

Sergei Parajanov | 1hr 50min

It takes a story as rooted in convention and archetypes as this ‘Romeo and Juliet’ inspired plot to imbue Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors with solid narrative form, as Sergei Parajanov certainly needs it to hold together his wildly avant-garde experiments in style. Comparisons may be drawn to Mikhail Kalatozov, his Soviet contemporary of similarly Georgian origin, especially in the untethered camerawork swinging through scenes with reckless abandon, and the low angles framing faces against monochromatic skies. But where Kalatozov was an actively propagandistic filmmaker working for the USSR government and gently pushing the boundaries of socialist realism, Parajanov broke all the rules in inventing his own unhinged, magical realist style that would only serve to inflame national authorities.

Parajanov constructing crosses in his mise-en-scène as formal markers of tragedy.

In a Hutsul village nestled in a Ukrainian mountain range, a young man, Ivan, falls in love with Marichka, a woman who lies on the other side of a feudal divide. When she passes away shortly after their marriage, he grows depressed, unable to shake her ghostly memory. Even when he finally remarries, her presence continues to be felt, and gradually erodes his relationship with his new wife.

Parajanov has no pretences about the simplicity of this narrative. It is a folk tale, first and foremost, powerfully rooted in Hutsul customs and Orthodox traditions which remain unifying forces through the clashes and tragedies of Ivan’s life. When misfortune strikes, Parajanov sets up crosses in his scenery, a constant reminder of how this community turns to spiritualism when confronted by life’s hardships, especially marking occasions of weddings and funerals with their own uniquely Hutsul rituals. Having been raised in this culture of pervasive religious dominance, Ivan comes to depend on his connection to the divine as a manner to transcend the material world and maintain contact with his lost love. As we witness in a colourful, hypnotic montage dissolving between Ivan’s thoughtful face in prayer and Orthodox iconography of Christ, this belief is his saving grace, injecting a peaceful radiance in the middle of an otherwise entirely black-and-white sequence of the film following Marichka’s death. Though the montage is short-lived, colour does eventually return to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors with the arrival of Palahna, Ivan’s new love, this time becoming a more permanent fixture.

A colour montage made up of long dissolves, firmly binding Ivan to his Orthodox beliefs.

With the introduction of pagan phenomena in the film’s final act, the Christian bedrock of Ivan’s life starts to destabilise, as restless spirits and sorcerers disrupt the Hutsul traditions that Parajanov has so painstakingly detailed. Still, this shift in focus does not even slightly signify a shift in momentum, as his camera continues to spin, whip, twirl, tilt, pan, and track characters across the village’s rocky rivers, snowy forests, and rustic interiors, finding strikingly surreal compositions in each of these settings. Not everything he does falls in line with the rest of the film, as at times Parajanov seems more invested in his erratic whims of visual artistry than tying it all together, but there is still powerful form to this fable. In clashing directly with the religious and cultural customs it is depicting, the disorientating, energetic experiments of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors effectively shake off the stagnancy of this village’s repetitive lifestyle, instead settings its sights on the haunting mysticism which lies just beyond the boundaries of a narrow-minded society, and within the minds of its own characters.

Too many painterly images to include on one page. Parajanov is a thoroughly experimental artist, always finding the most strikingly audacious angle or composition for any given scene.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is currently unavailable to watch in Australia.