Monday, February 06, 2006

Two Othellos

I’m teaching Othello this week and next so I rented two movie versions of it to watch this weekend. Of the four major Shakespearean tragedies, I know Othello the least well and it’s fun and fascinating to return to it after many years. The films, however, have been a big surprise.

I was curious and excited about the Orson Welles version from 1952. Could I get over the weirdness of Welles in blackface to enjoy Welles in a role that I knew he’d be good in? Well, it’s a very good movie though I had to watch it in chunks. It’s starkly black and white, full of serious, European symbolist imagery. There are some visually stunning shots: I loved a particularly vertiginous moment where Othello backs Iago to the edge of a Cyprus cliff and the camera, over their heads, captures Iago’s fear and the crashing surf as Othello threatens to kill Iago if his insinuations about Desdemona prove false. It’s also nice to set the attempted murder of Cassio in a Turkish bath, a sword piercing through slats in a wooden walkway over the water. (Is it a sewer, as the DVD documentary suggests, or just a kind of canal serving the bath?)

Overall, however, it is a dark film. I don’t mean that metaphorically; I mean that it is often hard to see. Furthermore, I didn’t think much of Iago and sometimes found it hard to tell him apart from Roderigo. This is actually a big problem: Iago is the bad guy and probably the most important role in the play to think through carefully; Roderigo is a fool and a tool—an instrument through whom Iago can plan some of his villainy. Sometimes, when the blond actor playing Cassio (the second of Iago’s targets) was in darkness, I couldn’t even tell Cassio from Roderigo or Iago. Pair that with imperfect sound, a camera rarely on a speaker’s lips, and lots of expressivist angle shots, and you get a movie that is just kind of confusing.

What a nice surprise then, to turn to the Kenneth Branagh 1995 “Othello” (with Laurence Fishburne in the title role and Branagh hamming it up as Iago). Branagh is a ham but I like him and, frankly, it’s useful to have him looking straight at the camera to say, “I hate the Moor.” Got it.

I haven’t finished watching it, but, boy, I like it. It’s visually so clear. It’s not sophisticated as film but, to my shame, I think I have discovered that I don’t care as much about visual sophistication as I do about other things. Plus, the movie is really interested in Desdemona and turns her into something other than a new Ophelia. She is not at all like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play: she is a brave, strong, confident young woman from go whereas the Ophelia we see is already confused and a little broken. Desdemona, by contrast, wishes she could have been such a man as Othello. And when her father disapproves of her marriage, she joins her husband at war. But really, I love just being able to watch the movie without straining after it, to enter more deeply into the situations because I can see that that guy on the right is Cassio and the one on the left is Iago.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of "European symbolist imagery" - so Cathy Horyn's audio slide shows of the Fall Fashion Shows in Paris are now online (here) - and they are almost as fantastic as last year's. This year, instead of mentioning Byron, she refers to one men's designer as answering the question, "What would Proust's great-great grandchildren be wearing?". She also mamages to throw in in Annie Proulx, J. Frank Dobie, Dolly Parton and, of course, the Marquis de Sade.

Unknown said...

She is SO grand. Thanks for the tip, Mike!

Her piece on young women designers behaving badly was delicious, too.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet? at 4 hours my students didn't like it but I enjoyed it quite a bit--though robin williams + billy crystal were a little jarring.

Have you seen Branagh's Henry V? My favorite of his adaptations, for sure. Wendi

Unknown said...

I don't think I have seen Hamlet. I love his Henry V--I think you're right that it may be the best though the sun-drenched & jolly Much Ado About Nothing is lovely (though Keanu Reeves is worse than jarring....)


Anonymous said...

I thought Branagh's Iago was the strongest film work he's ever done, as he can be earnest and/or bland at times. I will get that Othello out again, thanks for reviewing it as I haven't watched it for yonks.
All Ken's Shakespeare films focus on the text first and are films second, though. Loved every one of them, especially Hamlet - but the text is always in the foreground. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course...

Anne, once I get a new telly I must look at that Orson Welles version - thanks for the warning!